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Mental health issues increase at jail

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Mental health issues increase at jail

Elko County Sheriff Aitor Narvaiza, left, and Lt. Doug Fisher discuss jail conditions with Elko County Commissioners on Sept. 21, 2022.

ELKO – Mental health issues are common in any jail, but their frequency and severity have been getting much worse than normal in Elko County.

“As of this year so far we’ve had 10 suicide [attempts],” including two this month, Sheriff Aitor Narvaiza told county commissioners on Sept. 21. There have also been five injuries to jail staff from attacks by inmates.

Narvaiza was among many local officials who attended a mental health conference last week sponsored by MedX AirOne. He called it “probably the best meeting we’ve had” on the topic.

Aitor Narvaiza discusses suicide attempts and attacks on deputies as he answers questions from Elko County Commissioners on Sept. 21, 2022.

But solutions are hard to find, partly because of the ongoing labor shortage that has broadly impacted the U.S. economy.

“We have nine people currently in custody that are supposed to be going to Lake’s Crossing [Center] for mental health evaluations and we can’t get ’em there because they’re half-staffed,” Narvaiza told commissioners.

The sheriff gave kudos to jail deputies for thwarting four recent suicide attempts.

One inmate was given cleaning supplies to clean his cell but he drank them instead. Another one took a pen while he was talking to deputies and started stabbing himself with it.

“We had a couple individuals that tried to hang themselves” but deputies found them in time to cut them down. “They’re all OK,” the sheriff said.

Another inmate has been in isolation after refusing to eat. The jail has been in contact with doctors and the courts regarding force-feeding him.

Jail suicides were among the issues debated at a candidate forum in April, with one challenger saying there had been five inmate deaths over the past four years. Narvaiza went on to win re-election with more than 50% of the primary vote.

There have been no deaths by suicide at the jail this year, according to Undersheriff Justin Ames.

Commissioner Jon Karr wondered how many mental health problems are caused by drug abuse or vice versa.

Narvaiza replied that “it all runs together.”

“What we’ve found in the past was when people were using narcotics it would take a day or two for them to come off their high,” the sheriff said. “Now they’re back there three weeks, four weeks and they have no idea where they’re at. They’re still high, in their own little world.”

Disturbed inmates get combative, and have attacked jail deputies.

“The last month and a half we’ve had five deputies attacked by inmates,” Narvaiza said. One had to have surgery, another had a concussion and stitches, and one was bitten. Others were kicked or head-butted.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been blamed for a 25% increase in mental health problems globally, according to the World Health Organization. Though the virus is subsiding, behavioral effects linger.

“We’ve always had an issue with mental illness in the jail but in the last year it’s skyrocketed,” Narvaiza said.

Problems with medication or its availability are an issue, according to Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Fisher.

“When they are prescribed mental health medications and they are taking that inconsistently, one of the side effects is suicidal tendencies,” he said. Another is highly emotional behavior.

“We have several people back there who need mental health [treatment] and we can’t get it,” Narvaiza said of the jail. “We took one [to Reno] a couple weeks ago, they told us he was too unstable to house … they said he was too violent.”

That leaves them in the custody of the Elko jail, where staff must handle issues as they come up.

It’s “welcome to our world,” the sheriff concluded.

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