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Escambia County Addressing Inmate Deaths

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Escambia County officials are working on ways to prevent any increase in the number of inmate deaths at the county jail and to find and alleviate the causes as much as possible.

That’s part of an overall revamping of the jail’s medical facilities.

Twenty four inmates have died while in custody since 2007: 11 since control of the lockup was shifted from the Sheriff’s Office to the County, and seven of those since last November. Director Michael Tidwell was fired in December, with Assistant County Administrator Chip Simmons taking over.

“Every day, literally every day, I have had conversations with the command staff,” says Simmons. “We have changed policies [but] it’s important to note that we’ve always been consistent with Florida Model Jail Accreditation Standards.”

Among the policy changes, was placing the jail’s medical staff under the command staff, and the hiring of a health services administrator.

The Escambia County Jail houses around 1,500 inmates at any given time. Along with them, others have been in other jails: Santa Rosa and Walton Counties, and the Escambia Road Prison, since the 2014 flooding and explosion at the Central Booking Facility. Simmons says if someone’s sick or injured, they’re not sent to those jails.

Meanwhile, the cost of housing inmates in Santa Rosa alone for the next fiscal year is an estimated $1.7 million, $800,000 more than the current year. Simmons points to changes in the jail population.

At last check, there are about 120 inmates with serious illnesses, ranging from HIV to various levels of kidney and heart disease. Simmons says everyone arrested by an ECSO deputy is screened.

“We’re not a hospital, we’re not an emergency room; we have an infirmary and we have some staff, but there’s only so much we can do,” Simmons said. “If the determination is that we’re not equipped to handle whatever condition they have, we will turn them away and ask the arresting officer to take them back to the emergency room for a clearance.”

That happened 366 times last year alone, which Simmons says is indicative of the number of people who come in and are considered health risks.

Since November 2014, there have been at least three suicides at the jail. Suicide watch protocols are also being changed.

“Whether there’s an attempted suicide or a suicide, we evaluate the physical environment, and we evaluate what’s taking place and look for ways we can prevent it,” said Simmons. “We have made some changes with regards to stepdown cells; to viewing the people at-risk for suicide. We’ve made some changes to who decides when someone’s no longer a suicide risk or not.”

One bright spot is that inmate-on-inmate violence, while a concern, has not occurred in quite a while. The key is avoiding familiarity and grudges, both old and new.

But despite the best prevention, despite the best medical care, people still die. Assistant Administrator Chip Simmons understands this, but adds that the mission remains the same.

“If it’s someone’s time to go, there’s not much that any human can do about it,” Simmons said. “But there is the side of that, which says, ‘Hey, let’s make sure we provide the absolute best care that we can.’ We’re going to keep working hard, we’re going to keep doing it every day, and we are getting better.”