Jail suicides raise questions of what should be shared with the public
Three inmates died at the Albany County Detention Center in the seven month period between September 2021 and April 2022. Wyoming Public Radio's Jeff Victor looked into why these deaths were not made public until they were brought up at a public forum for WyoFile. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska asked Victor how he first found out about the deaths.
Jeff Victor: So, I had been hearing rumors about some deaths occurring in the county jail kind of throughout the summer. As a local reporter, I've talked to a lot of people and a few had mentioned these deaths in passing. So I started looking into it. Most people in the community only found out when it became a topic in the sheriff's race. The sheriff's Republican challenger, Joel Senior, brought it up during a public forum last month.
Kamila Kudelska: What was Sheriff Appelhans' reasoning for why these deaths were not made public?
JV: Hearing about these deaths through the rumor mill raises the question of why there was no press release or public communication about either the two suicides or the one overdose. I put this question to the sheriff during a debate last month. And basically, he said he wanted to protect and respect the privacy of the grieving families. And he felt like not releasing the information was the way to do that. His opponent pointed out that the sheriff could have still informed the public about the incident without naming the victim.
KK: So Sheriff Appelhans didn't put out a press release out of respect for the families. Is that correct?
JV: That is his stance, yes. I should clarify, there were three deaths. One was a fatal overdose that's still under investigation. So we don't know the name of that victim or many other details. The other two were suicides. With the first suicide, the sheriff got in touch with the family and I'm not privy to that conversation. But with the second suicide, the sheriff tried to reach the victim's emergency contact, which was his partner, and failed. No further attempts were made. So the victim's mother and sister were just left in the dark.
KK: So that victim is Michael Mora. I understand that you spoke to his mom, Tammy Mora. So let's kind of focus on his death. Can you tell me a little bit about meeting Tammy Mora?
JV: So I talked to Tammy Mora one weekend about how her son's death played out from her end. And honestly, it's pretty devastating. It's pretty upsetting. She never heard from the sheriff's office. Like I said, she just got a call from an emergency room doctor in Colorado on Easter morning telling her that her son was on life support. She was understandably angry at the sheriff's office, one for not contacting her, and then also for blaming the lack of transparency on the wishes of the family when the sheriff never spoke to the family. Tammy felt like the sheriff's office kept it all quiet to hide that they had messed up or dropped the ball somewhere.
KK: Why do you think these deaths and the non-disclosure of them are significant?
JV: Sheriff Appelhans stands by his original reasoning for not telling the public. But it's hard to square that with his message of transparency, which is one of the cornerstones of his campaign. Each death itself would have been worth covering, maybe respecting the families by holding back the names, but noting in the press that someone had died in the care of the Albany County Sheriff's Office. I would have liked to do that, because that's what this is really all about. The sheriff's office is responsible for the people they lock up. And if your friend, neighbor or family member gets arrested, you should feel comfortable knowing that you're going to see them again. It's really terrifying to think they might be dragged away by the police and disappear forever. So the deaths themselves are worth knowing about. But the lack of transparency about these deaths is also notable in itself. When three people die in custody in the span of seven months, people shouldn't be hearing about that through the rumor mill or as a political point on the campaign trail.
KK: What is the status quo for jails regarding deaths in jails of reporting to the public?
JV: I don't know if there's really a standard way. Well, one, it's a pretty rare event, like, we've been requesting, like, the last 10 or 11 years' worth of death data for jails all across the state and lots of jails have had no deaths in that time. And I'm not even sure that the last sheriff here had a death. So I don't think there's a specific policy about what to do. And it's, I guess it's kind of up to the sheriff. Appelhans' opponent has definitely said he would notify the public. But that's really the only other point that I have to go on as far as what's normal or not. I know when there's a death in the state prison, we get press releases about that. But that doesn't seem to be the norm with jails, as far as I can tell so far.
KK: And so like you mentioned, you have gotten a bunch of data, and in the last two years, suicides have been reported in at least four Wyoming county jails.
JV: Yeah. It is important to note that suicides have been rising in jails across the country over the past two years. COVID has played a part in that but so has the poor state of mental healthcare for people in jail in general.
KK: Appelhans says he's addressed the problems. Can you explain how and is that enough?
JV: So, to his credit, the sheriff invited Wyoming DCI to investigate each incident. Sheriffs aren't actually required to do that. I learned they can investigate themselves if they want. But it is a good idea to get outside eyes on a critical incident like this that happens with your people under your roof. As far as the suicides go, Sheriff Appelhans said they've reduced the amount of time inmates have between check ins after the nightly lockdown, which is when both of those suicides happened. And as far as the overdose goes, he's also purchased a body scanner to make it harder for inmates to smuggle drugs into the jail. But as far as the problem with communication with the public, it doesn't look like anything significant is changing considering that he still stands by his decision not to issue press releases. I think the next time there's a death in the jail, if there is a next time, we're probably not going to get a press release about that either.
KK: So what now? What do you hope people can take away from this?
JV: First and foremost, I hope people can feel Tammy Mora's pain. I can't imagine the loss she suffered and the frustration that she feels. No one should lose a loved one just because they were arrested. Beyond that, I hope people in positions of power feel watched. In a democratic society, our leaders work for us and journalists don't dig into these stories because they hate the politician or because they want to sink the Democratic Party. Believe me, I'm catching some hate this week for publishing such an inconvenient story. But we journalists, we need to hold everyone accountable, especially on these matters of life and death.