Klickitat County moves to shutter jail after high-profile incidents

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
April 2, 2024 12:29 a.m.

Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer said he’s “blindsided” by the county commissioners’ decision.

After playing host to two harrowing incidents in the past year, the Klickitat County Jail appears to be bound for a sudden and permanent closure. The local sheriff said the move “blindsided” him.

“We knew nothing about this,” Sheriff Bob Songer told OPB on Monday. “We’re kind of in the dark to be quite honest with you.”


On Friday, Klickitat County officials signaled they plan to supplant Songer and his staff as the jail’s stewards. If the plan moves forward, the county would close the jail and use its budget to enter a contract with the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities — also known as NORCOR — based in The Dalles.

FILE: Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer speaks at a public meeting in August of 2023.

FILE: Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer speaks at a public meeting in August of 2023.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

Plans aren’t finalized, Klickitat County commissioners said Monday. However, they do have a fast-approaching deadline to close the jail: April 12.

If the county contracts with NORCOR, inmates will likely be transported and detained across state lines. The move also threatens to lay off 16 corrections deputies, according to Songer.

The sheriff said he’s not entirely sure what will happen to his staff if the county takes away the jail. He expressed frustration that county officials did not inform him this was their plan ahead of time and didn’t work to find other solutions.

“It’s just not an easy situation,” Songer said.

Klickitat County already contracts with NORCOR for some of its detention services, Commissioner Jacob Anderson said, so the move isn’t taking county officials into completely new territory.

Anderson, alongside Lori Zoller, voted 2-1 for the plan last week.

Opponents, like Songer, have accused the two commissioners of scheming to strip the jail of its resources. Songer said estimates he will lose about $700,000 from his budget if the jail closes.

Commissioner Dan Christopher, the lone opponent on the council, also took to Facebook to call the move a “hasty decision.”

Neither Zoller, nor Christopher could be reached for comment by press time.


Anderson, however, disagreed with their characterizations. He said he talked with county staff and other elected officials about the future of the jail. All discussions with his fellow commissioners happened in public, he said.

“The decision to address the conditions at the Klickitat County Jail and explore alternatives, including NORCOR, was driven by a commitment to improve the safety, well-being and dignity of all the individuals involved,” Anderson said in a written statement.

The move comes after two incidents spilled out of the jail and startled the public.

Last May, 24-year-old Ivan Howtopat died by suicide in the jail while enduring fentanyl withdrawal. His family filed a $20 million tort claim two months ago, contending jail staff neglected to catch warning signs he was a suicide risk. Howtopat was barely conscious during jail intake, records show.

Then, in November, a female inmate had so deteriorated at the jail that she was taken to the local hospital covered in bugs and smelling “like dead rotting flesh,” according to a Goldendale Police Department officer on the scene. Nurses believed the inmate was nearly septic, a bodily response to severe infection that can cause organ failure and death.

OPB first reported about the female inmate — who has since been released — last month. Neither she, nor her legal representatives have responded to multiple requests for comment.

But her experience at the jail angered some residents and fueled public calls for changes.

“There seems to be an increasing trend of human rights violations and just blatant disregard for people’s right to have medical care,” Rita Pinchot told county commissioners at a March 26 meeting. “You, as the board of commissioners, are the only people that can stop this.”

In a phone call Monday, Songer held steadfast that the jail has done nothing wrong.

In the wake of the female inmate’s hospital trip, both the sheriff and his jail administrator blamed the incident on state policies. They said corrections deputies take too long to get trained and state psychiatric facilities are too full, leaving understaffed county jails with the difficult task of caring for high-needs inmates.

“It isn’t that we didn’t try. That’s what’s frustrating,” Songer said. “A lot of these naysayers have never been in that jail.”

Songer also said the public outcry against the jail is politically motivated.

The sheriff has in recent years become a divisive figure locally for bashing COVID-19 restrictions and gun laws. And, for the past year, he has given the jail’s reins to Loren Culp, a once-gubernatorial candidate with similar politics.

When asked about Culp’s future with the jail closing, Songer said he plans to transfer the now-former jail administrator to chief criminal deputy; an administrative position overseeing the sheriff’s enforcement branches.

“That’s going to make some of the Songer haters and Culp haters pretty upset probably,” Songer said.

Culp was not available Monday for comment.