Ryan Robertson, Arnold Sharkey, Christopher Goldner: Jail Inmates 'Slumped' to Their Deaths

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Despite the oversight of the Justice Department and a new emphasis on preventing suicides in the King County Jail, there seems almost no way to stop inmates determined to take their own lives, judging by newly released records on the death of three prisoners who killed themselves in a one-month stretch last year. Ryan Robertson, 33, Arnold Sharkey, 45, and Christopher Goldner, 32, were all reported by the media as hanging victims, but to be more precise, each of them slumped to their deaths, records now show. With fewer ways to insert a sheet or other objects into overhead devices and dangle to their deaths, the inmates tied sheets or clothing to beds and fixtures, then sat or leaned forward as their nooses asphyxiated them.

Robertson, for example, was found Sept. 20 in his cell with his uniform pants tied around his neck and looped through the plumbing to his toilet. Arrested two days earlier for an attempted robbery at Uwajimaya, he persistently slumped forward until he could no longer breathe. Though he was resuscitated, he died eight days later at Harborview Medical Center. He had earlier complained of chest pains and at one point fell from his bunk, but had given no sign he was suicidal, the jail says in its death report.

Sharkey, who died seven days earlier, had been arrested August 26 at Sea-Tac Airport on a felony warrant. He had worked for the Jacksonville, Florida, Sheriff's Office for 20 years, then resigned after he was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon--ramming a vehicle carrying his ex-wife and her brother. He later violated probation, and a warrant was issued for his arrest on the day he was passing through Sea-Tac.

He told police he was surprised the warrant made its way into the system so fast, and said he'd been on his way to Alaska "to start a new life." Jail officials later learned he was suicidal when told by Florida authorities he had talked about "suicide by cop." He was originally placed in the jail's psychiatric unit, then moved to general housing on August 31.

On September 10 he was found hanging from an upper bunk with a sheet tied around his neck. CPR was started, and when fire department medics arrived, they got a pulse and Sharkey began breathing again. But, like Robertson, his brain was badly damaged by the loss of oxygen, and he died three days later at Harborview.

On that day, September 13, the jail was made aware by Florida authorities of a letter Sharkey had recently sent to a Florida judge, asking for help on his case. "I will not survive being incarcerated either because I will be placed in isolation or because I am a police officer. My life is in your hands," he wrote. Had the jail known this sooner, Sharkey might have been returned to the psych unit under suicide watch.

Goldner, also arrested for a domestic dispute as well as parole violation, wasn't thought to be suicidal when he was jailed in March last year. But in May he slit his wrists, and after medical treatment was sent to the psych floor. By June, he was declared "no longer suicidal," according to the jail log. He continued to get into disputes with inmates and jail officers. He cut one wrist again in July, and told officers there would be a "bloodbath" if he didn't get a psych appointment.

On August 11, he began to bang his head on a cell door and said he was planning to hang himself with a sheet. He was seen by a nurse, and later said "I'm all right." But five days later, he was indeed found with a sheet around his neck tied to his cell sink. He had made a noose of the sheet and just sat down and waited for it to strangle him. He could not be revived.

After the three died in succession, the jail announced it was once again reviewing its procedures for suicide prevention. In 2007, the Justice Department found that prevention training at the downtown jail "falls far below generally accepted correctional practices." The DOJ later reached a settlement with the jail, which was accused of violating the civil rights of its prisoners. The DOJ publishes regular reports on how the jail is improving, or not, and in October, the last report issued, said:

"As stated in previous reports," the jail has "remained completely cooperative [and] accepting of the corrective actions . . . and often willing to listen to recommendations...That said, in must be noted that following our July 2010 monitoring tour, the [jail] experienced three suicides in the span of five weeks." Was the jail still failing to do the right thing at the right time to prevent such deaths? That would be reviewed and will be taken up in the next report, the DOJ promises.

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