Crime

UPDATE: Inmate found dead at Benton County jail identified, autopsy planned

Tri-City Herald

A inmate who died at the Benton County jail Wednesday evening was suffering from an undisclosed medical condition and was being checked on every 30 minutes, said officials.

Steven Flaten, 40, was found unresponsive in his cell just after 5:30 p.m., said the Benton County Sheriff’s Office. Medical staff and corrections officers tried to care for Flaten but he was declared dead shortly after being found. Suicide is not suspected.

Still, Sheriff Steve Keane has requested the regional special investigative unit investigate Flaten’s death, and his office will review procedures concerned with inmate health and safety.

He said Flaten’s death — the second this year at the jail and the fourth in two years — is more a result of the frequent health problems of prisoners than of any missteps or lack of care by police and corrections officials.

“The jail is a microcosm of what’s going on in our community,” Keane told the Herald. “We’re seeing some extremely, extremely sick inmates.”

The jail is a microcosm of what’s going on in our community. We’re seeing some extremely, extremely sick inmates.

Sheriff Steve Keane, Benton County

The Benton County Coroner’s Office plans an autopsy on June 11.

Flaten had been in custody since Monday after being arrested in connection with a Kennewick homicide investigation involving narcotics. He was being held on warrants for charges of forgery, theft and possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

He also allegedly had methamphetamine and heroin on him when he was booked into the jail, leading to an additional charge of introduction of contraband into a correctional facility. He appeared Monday in Benton County District Court on that charge and was ordered back to the jail on a 72-hour hold without bail.

Staff at Trios Southridge Hospital checked Flaten out for an ongoing medical issue and for possibly being under the influence of drugs before he was jailed His medical condition required that he be checked on frequently by corrections officers and be kept separate from other inmates.

Flaten also saw jail medical staff several times in the two days he was in custody, including just hours before his death, when he was in stable condition. Keane said Flaten had been cooperative and corrections officers never need to use force with him.

Flaten’s death comes just a few months after the death of Marc Anthony Moreno. The 18-year-old was in a single-person cell when he was found dead on March 11. He’d be at the jail for a little more than a week. An autopsy found no signs of major injuries, and suicide was not suspected. Toxicology results have yet to be released in that investigation.

We’re seeing an increase in deaths and they’re going to continue to happen despite our best efforts. We really do try to get it right but there are people who are so mentally or physically sick, and they’re at a high likelihood of dying.

Sheriff Steve Keane, Benton County

Moreno’s family says he was bipolar and suffered from schizophrenia. He had sought help several times in the days before his arrest. In jail, he was evaluated twice a day by mental health staff, and corrections officers checked on him more than 600 times while he was in the jail.

Last year, two other Benton County inmates, Cory L. Watson, 52, and Michael Shea, 22, took their own lives while in custody.

Keane said Benton County isn’t the only place where jail deaths are on the rise. A number of other Washington counties have seen spikes in inmate deaths in the past decade, and a 2015 national report shows that jail and prison deaths have increased every year since 2002.

A number of inmates in Benton County have serious mental health issues, including one who refuses to eat or drink and requires restraints because he regularly assaults officers. Another inmate’s health is compromised by kidney and liver problems, as well as having a pacemaker.

“We’re seeing an increase in deaths and they’re going to continue to happen despite our best efforts,” Keane said. “We really do try to get it right but there are people who are so mentally or physically sick, and they’re at a high likelihood of dying.”

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