2017 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Death Behind Bars

Anjeanette Damon and Brian Duggan

Reno Gazette-Journal

Knight Award for Public Service


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About the Project

Donald Torres drank himself to death in the Washoe County Jail’s infirmary—with water. Keely Darmody vomited until she died while detoxing from opiates. Deputies kept three men pinned to the floor on their stomachs so long their hearts stopped beating. One mentally ill man, Justin Thompson, was kicked and ridiculed during the incident.

These are among the deaths at the Washoe County Jail uncovered by Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Anjeanette Damon and editor Brian Duggan in a year-long investigation. Data obtained by the Reno Gazette-Journal showed a silent spike in deaths at the jail that began when the new sheriff took office in 2015.

Our investigation found people were dying at the jail with little scrutiny. The new administration had stopped putting out press releases on in-custody deaths. Only one outside investigation had been conducted. The district attorney reviewed not a single death.

Meanwhile, the death rate had spiked 600 percent. The suicide rate was five times the national average. In two years, 13 people died, compared to 10 people who had died in the eight years prior.

Our investigation started with a simple data request for 10 years of statistics on in-custody deaths. From there, Damon spoke in length with the families of those who had died; scoured through hundreds of documents, interviewed experts across the country and watched hours of video depicting the terrible final moments of three inmates who died while being restrained by deputies.

The Reno Gazette-Journal even went to court to successfully fight the deputies’ association who sought to block the release of the final video.

The investigation found the deaths coincided with a halt to suicide prevention training at the jail. Deputies didn’t receive regular training on how to identify and respond to an individual experiencing excited delirium—a deadly syndrome precipitated by drug use or a mental illness that’s worsened by police restraint techniques.

The sheriff had also skirted traditional contract procurement rules in selecting a new health contractor, which cut pay for medical personnel and failed to provide required levels of mental health care.

Reaction to the investigation was swift. As Damon reported the stories, the sheriff began reversing problematic policies and instituted additional training. As the deaths continued, he wrote a policy requiring outside investigations of deputy-involved homicides. And he began the process of finding a new health care contractor.

Once the investigation was published, Nevada lawmakers explored a state takeover of mental health at jails. County commissioners—after a follow up story pointed out they are required to inspect the jail and look after the inmates—began requiring monthly reports from the sheriff.

In the months after publication, the Reno Gazette-Journal fielded hundreds of social media comments, emails and phone calls from readers. While some felt the sheriff shouldn’t be held accountable, many thanked the newspaper for shining a light on a problem that had gone unnoticed. More families called asking for help. And advocates for those with a mental illness thanked us for standing up for some of the community’s most vulnerable citizens.