Northwest Jails’ Mounting Death Tolls Investigated, Includes Benton

A recent investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting, KUOW, and the Northwest News Network has uncovered a sharp rise of deaths in Oregon and Washington county jails during the past decade. Since 2008, at least 306 inmates have died in county jail custody, 97 inmates in Oregon and a staggering 209 inmates in Washington. Roughly half of these death are suicides.

Official figures for deaths in county jails are only available in years prior to 2015. OPB, KUOW, and the Northwest News Network compiled data from death records, news reports, and interviews with county officials and attorneys to construct an estimate of deaths that occurred in 2015-2018. Oregon and Washington do not comprehensively track deaths in county jails, instead leaving the counties to voluntarily report deaths to the federal government. Due to under-reporting by these counties, the estimate reached by this investigation is likely less than the number of actual deaths that occurred.  OPB noted that many counties disputed deaths that happened in their custody, resisted releasing information, and reported deaths to OPB that had not been reported to the federal government.

In 2008, 123 out of every 100,000 county inmates in Washington died while in custody. The investigation concluded that this number ballooned to roughly 200 deaths out of 100,000 imprisoned in 2018. At least 70 percent of these inmates in Oregon and Washington died before being convicted of a crime, 40 percent in the first week of incarceration, and 33 percent in the first three days. According to an ACLU report, almost 500,000 Americans are in jail awaiting trial every day, and many remain incarcerated for being too poor to afford bail.

Oregon has a noticeably lower number of jail deaths per year than Washington, and this may be due to stronger jail regulations. County jails in Oregon are subject to mandatory inspections from County Commissioners and grand juries, and are also inspected by jail personnel from other counties who report to the Oregon Dept. of Corrections. ODC has reported no action taken resulting from these inspections in the last decade. In Washington, however, no mandatory inspections are required.

The investigation mentioned two deaths in the Benton County jail since 2008. The first was 46-year-old Rory C Holmes who died of an acute asthma attack in 2016. He was charged with criminal trespass, interfering with police, DUI, and violent conduct, but had yet to be been convicted. The second was 41-year-old Alyssa M. Sund, who died of an undisclosed cause in 2018. She had been charged with theft, burglary, and criminal mischief. She was awaiting trial as well.

Benton County Undersheriff Greg Ridler was unable to disclose Sund’s cause of death to the Advocate, citing a pending lawsuit, but he did confirm that her death was not a suicide. Ridler noted that the jail has a staff nurse and a contract with a local doctor, and said that no new policies have been put in place resulting from these deaths.

Benton County has seen relatively few deaths compared to other counties in the region, and OPB’s report highlights a troubling lack of accountability regarding incarceration on the local level throughout the PNW.

“Many more people will see the inside of a local jail than will ever see a state or federal prison cell. And so the reach into the community is much greater and the potential damage, quite frankly, is much greater,” said Nancy Fishman, project director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. “It’s really part of this creeping wave of mass incarceration at the local level that’s remarkably unscrutinized.”

OPB’s report can be viewed here, it includes an interactive tool that categorizes and displays all of the data that was collected for this investigation.

 -By Jay Sharpe