It was Oct. 3, 2020, and the almost decade-old Douglas County Jail had never had a suicide or suicide attempt.
But as Correctional Officer Sheila Dyrstad made her evening rounds in the jail's maximum-security unit, an odd noise caught her attention. It was coming from the shower in an inmate's jail cell and it sounded like a burp.
Dyrstad finished checking on the rest of the inmates, then returned to the cell, where she heard the sound again, according to Jail Administrator Lee Johnson.
She called for backup, entered the cell and opened the shower door, where she found an inmate hanging from a bedsheet he had tied around the shower head. The shower head pokes out of the wall an inch-and-a-half and is designed to prevent suicides, Johnson said, as are other fixtures, such as encased light fixtures and towel hooks that give way under a certain amount of weight.
But the inmate was able to position the sheet just right so that it held his weight, Johnson said.
Backup arrived, and Correctional Officer Tanner Robasse used a special tool to cut down the inmate, which opened his airway, and the man was able to breathe on his own. He also had a pulse, and jail stuff called EMS workers who brought him to the emergency room. Johnson said he was told that the man would have died if the jail staff hadn't intervened.
This month, Dyrstad and Robasse received Life Saving Awards, while coworkers Sgt. Mike Townsend, Carly Golden and Zach Tvrdik received Distinguished Service Awards for the roles they played in saving the man's life.
“It’s not an every day thing so they handled it extremely well," Johnson said.
This is the first time the jail has had a suicide attempt in the 10 years it had been open, Johnson said, which he attributed to the screening process people go through when they are brought to the jail. Jail staff watches inmates for signs they might be suicidal, he said, such as being emotional during the screening process, or exhibiting a major personality shift. Inmates deemed suicidal are placed on suicide watch. The inmate had been in jail for one week and had no roommate, as the jail has stopped housing inmates together because of the pandemic.
Johnson said the jail hasn't made any changes since the 2020 incident.
“We just continue doing our measures," he said. "I think not having this happen in 10 years, it was almost to the month, is a testimony to how we do our intake questions and screen inmates.”
The jail and jail staff also draws high marks from the district public defender's office, which includes Douglas County.
“The public defender’s office dealings with the jail staff are always positive,” said Ruth Lee, the managing attorney for the defender's office. “That is a very challenging population in the jail. There are a lot of people who shouldn’t be in jail, but there’s no other place for them.”
She said those in jail often suffer from mental health issues and could benefit from mental health services instead of being locked up. She commended jail staff for doing a good job caring for a population where mental illness is common.
"They have a lot of pressure," she said.
Suicide is a serious concern in jails and prisons. According to federal government statistics, jail inmates were twice as likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. In 2018, the suicide rate was 45 per 100,000 jail inmates, while the rate was 22 per 100,000 among all U.S. residents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.