Think Out Loud

Southwest Washington county jail to close following lawsuit, inmate safety concerns

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
April 2, 2024 10:28 p.m. Updated: April 10, 2024 8:27 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, April 3

Last Friday, Klickitat County commissioners voted 2-1 during a special session to close the county jail following disturbing incidents that have called into question conditions in the facility and the treatment of inmates detained there. In January, the family of Ivan Howtopat filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit. Howtopat was withdrawing from fentanyl at the time of his detention and was found dead in his jail cell last May. Last November, a female inmate at the county jail was transferred to a local hospital after her health severely deteriorated while in custody.


Commissioners indicated they would transfer the roughly 30 inmates in the jail across state lines to the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles. Joining us to talk about the recent developments and what they mean for controversial Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer is Troy Brynelson, OPB’s Southwest Washington bureau chief.

Editor’s note: This story contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you love is considering self-harm, support is available 24 hours a day at the national suicide crisis lifeline. Just call 988.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last Friday, Klickitat County commissioners voted 2 to 1 to close the county jail. It followed two incidents last year that have called into question conditions at the facility and the treatment of inmates who are detained there. One inmate died by suicide in May. His family has filed a $20 million wrongful death suit against the county. In November, an inmate was transferred to a local hospital after her health severely deteriorated while in custody. Troy Brynelson has been following the story for months as OPB’s Southwest Washington bureau chief, and he joins us now. Welcome back.

Troy Brynelson: Hey, thanks for having me, Dave.

Miller: You’ve written about both of these incidents at the county jail. The first was the death of Ivan Howtopat. Can you tell us what happened to him?

Brynelson: Ivan Howtopat’s case is probably the more prominent of the two. We covered that last year. This is a 24 year old man in Goldendale who was arrested on a felony warrant, taken to the Klickitat County Jail, and he was there for about 15 days before he was found he had died by suicide in his cell. And like you just mentioned a second ago, the family recently, in January, let the county know that they planned to file a lawsuit.

Miller: So what are they alleging that the county did wrong?

Brynelson: He was a known fentanyl user and had been at the jail before. So the family’s perspective is that the jail should have been aware of the fentanyl withdrawal symptoms that he’d be going through, and the ways in which they should have adapted to that, prevented his eventual suicide. They’ve also dug up some reports that I think illustrate that, in their view, the county’s policies may have contributed to this. For example, jail staffers when they brought Ivan into the jail, wrote on their forms that he did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or acting strange. Yet at the same time, they also said that he was hard to wake and barely conscious while they brought him into the jail.

Miller: I know that public agencies can be pretty hamstrung in terms of what they say when they’re facing a lawsuit. But have they said anything about his death?

Brynelson: No, not really. Because there’s ongoing litigation, a lot of them aren’t willing to talk in specifics.

Miller: Six people in custody in Multnomah County jails died in a two month period last year, the largest spike in at least 15 years. The medical examiner ruled that two deaths were due to suicide, drug overdoses were suspected in at least two others. Can you put what’s happening in Klickitat County into the broader northwest picture?

Brynelson: The Howtopat family in their lawsuits are drawing a lot of attention to the fact that his case is very similar to a lot of other people’s cases where fentanyl withdrawal specifically is putting people in very difficult, more dire situations in jail than years past. The Seattle Times just did a pretty good article talking about rural jails in Washington state where they talk about the Howtopat case. And one of the things that they talk about are rural jails struggling to stock up on medications to help people going through fentanyl withdrawal, medications like methadone for example. In fact, just last session in Washington State, lawmakers passed a package that was trying to launch a program with about $7.5 million to try and help facilitate these jails to get more medication to help deal with people who are going through these extreme pangs.

Miller: You wrote recently about another case, this one from November involving a woman who had been an inmate in the jail for about two months. Can you tell us what happened to her?

Brynelson: This case is the one we reported most recently, and some of the details here that have been reported are difficult. A Goldendale Police Department officer, as we reported, was actually at the local hospital back in November. An inmate from the Klickitat County Jail was taken there. And this officer authored a police report detailing what she saw how the nurses were dealing with this inmate. The inmate had deteriorated so much that, these are her words, “the inmate smelled like dead rotting flesh while she was standing outside of the room.” This inmate was covered in bugs. Her hair was extremely matted. I’m gonna quote another line here from that report. She said, “as the nurses moved the inmate’s hair, the skin on the back of her neck started pulling away from her scalp.”

So all of that was to illustrate the state that she was in coming from the jail. She had noted in this report that the inmate had been apparently deteriorating at the jail for months, and it really raised questions about what the jail corrections deputies were doing that let this person get in that situation in the first place. And we’re not naming that person because we haven’t been able to get in touch with her or her family, but she has since been released from jail I should say.

Miller: How have prison officials explained what happened?

Brynelson: Again, out of concern for litigation, the sheriff’s office and the county officials have not been talking a ton about this. To my knowledge, this inmate and her family have not filed any sort of legal notice like the Howtopat family has. But the concern is enough that they’re being very mum on it.

I did talk to the sheriff and the jail administrator, and they spoke generally, alluding to similar cases or what may have been occurring in a situation like this. And they blamed state policies. They were pointing to the fact that “we can’t make an inmate take medication if they have behavioral health issues.” This is their words. “We can’t make them shower, we can’t make them use the toilet.” They were pointing the fingers a lot at state policies that, in their view, put their jail understaffed, under-resourced, in this position in the first place. Some of the specifics there, they would be pointing out the fact that state law enforcement has a bottleneck to train corrections deputies, so it makes it difficult to get trained personnel. And they also talked about how the Washington state hospital system, which has psychiatric beds for inmates of a certain degree of behavioral health crises, those beds are often full, there’s wait times to get them in. And so they would consider themselves to be housing these folks while they’re waiting to get to more effective care.

Miller: I should say that you also did talk to folks who worked in other prisons or county lockups who said that there are ways to take care of people who need physical help. You included that in your reporting as well.


I want to turn more squarely to the sheriff, Bob Songer. He’s a proponent of the constitutional sheriff movement. Can you remind us what that is?

Brynelson: The constitutional sheriff movement is a national movement. There’s actually an organization called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Association. This is a doctrine that believes that sheriffs have the highest local authority to interpret the constitution, that they should be able to, in practice, determine whether or not a state law, for example, is constitutional, and decide whether or not they’re going to enforce it in their community. You saw this come up a lot if a state passes gun restrictions, for example, and a constitutional sheriff may say “I’m not going to enforce this because it infringes on the second amendment.” And it’s come up in other cases too. Songer is a popular figure within that movement.

Miller: About a year ago, Sheriff Songer tapped Loren Culp to be the administrator of the Klickitat County Jail. That name was probably familiar to many Washington voters. Who is Loren Culp?

Brynelson: Loren Culp [was] a police chief in the town of Republic in Washington state. But he really rose to prominence as a politician. He was the Republican nominee for governor in Washington and ultimately lost to Jay Inslee. That was 2020. In 2022, he ran for [the] fourth congressional district, and also lost in that race too. He and Sheriff Songer were both peers within the constitutional sheriffs movement. In fact in one year, Songer was named the constitutional sheriff of the year, and Culp was named the police chief of the decade by that organization. So that’s how those two got to know each other. That’s very sympatico in those beliefs.

Miller: All of this is part of the background for the decision that the Klickitat County Commission took last Friday. What exactly did they announce?

Brynelson: They announced their plans to effectively take the jail away from the sheriff’s office. We’ve seen this in other communities. Clark County did this. Counties can decide for various reasons that they want to take the jail away from the sheriff. Oftentimes it’s financial reasons or what have you. But so that was their decision last Friday, a 2 to 1 vote, they’re going to take the jail away from the sheriff.

What they’re gonna do, rather than create an in-house jail services department, which is what some counties do, they’re just going to enter a contract with another existing jail in The Dallas, called NORCOR.

Miller: What is NORCOR?

Brynelson: NORCOR stands for Northern Oregon Corrections. It’s basically just the facility where four Columbia River Gorge counties have pooled their resources together to create one facility. I think it’s Wasco, Hood River, Sherman, and Gilliam counties. So they pool their resources for a much bigger facility, a bit more well resourced than if they each were individual satellite jails.

Miller: NORCOR has had its own share of issues over the years. Can you just give us a sense for some of those?

Brynelson: I haven’t been able to dive too much into this on my own. They made headlines a few years back because Disability Rights Oregon put out a critical report saying that their juvenile detention facility specifically was punitive, it used punishment and isolation more than other positive techniques on juvenile inmates. The jail was also in headlines like a lot of other facilities for its relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It’s one of those jails that has said it would stop working with ICE in the pursuit of detaining and deporting its inmates.

Miller: So let’s say that this does go forward, that the county stops having its own county jail. What would happen to the inmates who are currently in the county lockup?

Brynelson: Initially when we reported this, there was a pretty hard deadline. It’s even in the motion in the meetings where they talk about, ‘we want to close the jail by April 12th.’ And so I think there was an image that this thing had to get closed, everybody had to get moved, big bus, transport everybody across the river to another facility. Since that Friday decision, the county commissioners have kind of backed off that hard deadline a little bit more. They’re expecting to move forward with this plan, but to do it a little bit more in transition. There’s a lot still up in the air, but a lot of the belief right now is that, yes, they’ll have to transport those current inmates in Klickitat County across the river to The Dallas. It’s just a question of when and whether or not the contract signs actually go through.

Miller: Talking about crossing the river, are there any issues in terms of having detainees, say, people awaiting trial or sentences under a year based in Washington, but having them be in a lock up in a different state?

Brynelson: There’s logistical issues that you’re raising, I think. Klickitat County is a broad county already, it’s wide, it can take like an hour to get from one end to the other. There’s a lot of smaller communities there. The county has been criticized in this plan so far by people asking them ‘what are you gonna do, keep a deputy on the road for an hour or so to move them from a jail to the courthouse for hearings, etc?’ When you talk to the county officials, they say ‘we’re aware of those concerns and we’re working on them.’

Legally though, this was my question, whether or not there was any sort of any weird hiccups with crossing state lines. But no, in Washington State. Apparently the state law that governs this move from county commissioners to take the jail in the first place also is pretty explicit that it can contract with counties neighboring in other states. Legally, there’s not really that much of an issue.

Miller: What did you hear from the sheriff about this idea?

Brynelson: Sheriff Bob Songer was very upset. He was adamant that he was blindsided. He kept repeating that when I interviewed him on Monday, that this was done without his consent, that the county was making moves behind his back in his view, and that he was upset. He actually talked quite a bit about being in the dark himself. He’s like, ‘I have 16 staffers who run the corrections. And I by all counts, it seems as though they’re going to be out of the job pretty soon.’

Miller: Briefly, is this a done deal?

Brynelson: This is not a done deal. This is a work in progress. NORCOR has confirmed to us that they are in negotiations with Klickitat County. Klickitat County has confirmed that they’re still trying to figure everything out. We’ve kind of touched on some of these logistics issues and there’s a lot left to be sorted out. And we haven’t even talked about how they’ve got to communicate with the unions and the financial actual budgetary implications of all this. They set that hard April 12th deadline, but it doesn’t seem like they’re going to meet that deadline. They got to give themselves more time to sort this out.

Miller: Troy, thanks very much.

Brynelson: Thank you.

Miller: Troy Brynelson is OPB’s Southwest Washington bureau chief. He joined us to talk about the recent decision by Klickitat County commissioners to close their county jail.

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