Woman’s suicide prompts changes at Clark County jail

The hanging death of a woman at at the Clark County Detention Center has prompted an investigation — and some immediate changes.

Las Vegas police Undersheriff Jim Dixon said Friday that Kathy Renee Priest, 46, killed herself on Dec. 27 by tying a bed sheet to the flushing mechanism on a wash basin above her toilet, wrapping the sheet around her neck and sitting back against the wall.

After her death the jail replaced or removed similar flushing mechanisms in five cells, he said. The mechanism, described as a knob, was large enough to tie a sheet to it, and high enough for Priest to hang herself, Dixon said.

A critical incident review was also underway to determine if Priest, a U.S. Navy veteran said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, should have been considered a suicide risk and watched closer by jail staff.

“We do our due diligence. We go back and review the housing this individual was in,” Dixon said at a news conference.

Priest, also known as Kathy Ritner, was jailed Dec. 10 for a parole violation, but she’d been booked at the jail several times in recent years. During the prior bookings Priest told jail screeners she had attempted suicide in the past, although Dixon said she never tried to hurt herself while in Clark County’s jail.

She didn’t tell screeners she was suicidal when jailed last month, but medical notes regarding her history of suicide attempts were available to the jail psychiatrist who interviewed her the day after she was booked.

Dixon said the psychiatrist determined Priest was “not at risk” for suicide during his evaluation and Priest, who suffered from seizures, was placed in the general medical population on the second floor of the jail’s north tower.

It’s unclear what information the psychiatrist used to make the evaluation. Dixon said he hadn’t read the doctor’s notes and the information would be revealed during the internal review.

Four days after her evaluation, Priest was moved from the general medical population and placed in medical housing isolation after an altercation with jail staff. Dixon said she disrupted officers and staff as another inmate was having a medical episode.

“(She) interfered and had to be removed from the area,” he said.

There are 11 medical isolation rooms at the jail, with one inmate per room. Eight rooms were occupied after Priest was transferred.

Had the doctor considered Priest a suicide risk she wouldn’t have been left alone, Dixon said.

He said the jail participates in a “step-down” mental health program to prevent suicide. If an inmate expresses suicidal desires or suddenly receives bad news, such as a lengthy prison sentence, “we automatically start looking at that person for the possibility of committing suicide,” he said.

Officers check cells of suicidal inmates more frequently, with some checks as often as every four minutes, he said. Those inmates are often housed closer to guards and have roommates.

“We never put them in a single cell if they have suicidal tendencies,” he said.

The jail psychiatrist works for NaphCare, a private company hired by Clark County to provide medical care at the jail. Dixon said the doctor, who he did not identify, will be interviewed by investigators.

Officers Duane Jensen, a 22-year veteran of the department, Allen Tinder, a 7-year veteran, and training officer John Newbold were on duty and performing 30-minute cell checks when Priest killed herself. Tinder was Newbold’s training officer.

Jensen discovered Priest’s body on a routine check. She was already dead when the medical staff tried to revive her, Dixon said.

“They were within the 30-minute timeline,” Dixon said, noting that all checks are documented. He said the officers were more meticulous with their checks in the presence of a trainee.

“They seemed to be engaged at a training level above and beyond what the normal requirements are,” he said.

Dixon said the step-down program has been effective at reducing suicide. Aside from Priest, there was only one other suicide last year.

Dillon Michael Hill, 25, hanged himself in a dormitory shower in April. He was found unconscious and taken to University Medical Center, where he died four days later.

There have been eight suicides in the last five years, Dixon said.

Priest seemed unable to overcome drug problems and a felony criminal case that started almost three years ago.

She was arrested in March 2011 after she set fire to a waste basket at Valley Hospital and Medical Center. She was initially arrested on charges of arson and attempted murder, but prosecutors instead charged her with attempted malicious destruction of private property.

She pleaded guilty to the charge and was given probation and a suspended sentence. Her lawyer told the judge that Priest was a homeless Navy veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was staying at The Shade Tree homeless shelter at the time, according to court records.

Priest violated her probation in May, 2012, court records show, but the judge reinstated the probation with the stipulation that she report to a transitional housing program for the homeless and seek intensive treatment for a drug problem.

She violated her probation again in early December after police arrested her on a domestic battery charge.

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com. Follow @blasky on Twitter.