Recently the Reno Gazette-Journal has been reporting on a rise in deaths at the Washoe County jail under Sheriff Chuck Allen. Since I have one of the legal defender contracts with Reno Municipal Court, I find myself representing defendants currently incarcerated in Washoe County jail frequently and as a result am very familiar with the jail.
The conditions in the jail are tough, and for sheriff’s deputies clocking in for a hard day’s work that could not be more true. Many within the inmate population suffer from mental health or addiction issues. A smaller subset of the population are perpetually violent, and gangs have a presence among inmates. Whatever social ill society chooses not to address gets pushed down to the employees working at the Washoe County jail.
It is important that society, and not just the sheriff’s office, chooses to address this issue.
The problems of recidivism, violence, addiction and social disenfranchisement begin well before a defendant is booked into the jail. The matrix of social structures in the Reno community must all work in concert to address these issues. School district officials must make sure no student is left without the skills to make a living in the 21st century. Local officials must make sure social services are administered efficiently and that our law enforcement officers and social workers are continuously updated in their training and paid to reflect the difficulty of their jobs. Our state and federal officials must ensure that we have adequate resources that acknowledge the magnitude of the challenges we face as a society. Our court systems must fix the revolving door of recidivism by innovating through specialty courts, alternative sentencing programs, and other criminal justice reforms. Finally our culture must promote positive role models for our youth to emulate and the media needs to continue to spotlight not only what our community gets wrong, but also what our community gets right.
The recent news coverage on inmate deaths at the Washoe County jail indicates there is certainly room for reform at the sheriff’s office. The broader Reno community must also show the willingness to address the problem as well. If we come together as a community we can have a criminal justice system that protects society and supports law enforcement while still seeking to rehabilitate and redirect those convicted of crimes that are ready to work to rejoin society.
This is two hours of footage from the Washoe Co. Jail showing the entire struggle that led to Justin Thompson’s death. The struggle begins at timestamp 7:44. The struggle intensifies at 24:53. Deputies start life-saving efforts at 41:30.