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'It's coming through the front door': Spokane Co. Jail Director talks challenges, future for local jails

Michael Sparber, who became the full-time Spokane County Director of Detention Services in July, sat down with KREM to talk about his future plans for the jails.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Michael Sparber became the Spokane County Director of Detention Services in July after serving as the interim director following the January resignation of former director John McGrath.

Sparber served as assistant director under McGrath, who said in his resignation that the time was right for him to "pass the baton onto new leadership."

The Spokane County Jail, which has been under the oversight of the Spokane County Board of Commissioners since it took control from the sheriff's office in 2013, and been under the spotlight in recent years due to nine inmates dying since June 2017.

In one case, witnesses interviewed by investigators after the death of inmate Shane Carson said he had been screaming for help for 15 minutes to an hour before he died in his cell.

RELATED: Inmate screamed for an hour before death in Spokane Co. Jail, witness says

In June, KREM spoke to the mother of an inmate who died in the jail the day before, claiming that her daughter didn't receive the medical attention she requested despite numerous attempts. 

She also said that her daughter was bullied by guards and had her Pacemaker running on backup batteries by the time she was taken to surgery.

RELATED: 'She was begging for help': Mother of dead Spokane Co. Jail inmate speaks out

Sparber agreed to sit down with KREM investigative reporter Ian Smay to talk about his path to becoming director, the challenges the jails face, and what his plans are for the future of detention facilities in Spokane County.

Watch the full interview below, or click here to watch on YouTube.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity, brevity and grammar. KREM's Ian Smay's questions are in bold, while Spokane County Director of Detention Services Michael Sparber's words appear in normal type.

SMAY: Just to start off, what's your criminal justice background?

SPARBER: I've been employed with Spokane County Detention Services since 1988. I started off as a corrections officer, worked my way to sergeant, and then spent about 10 years as a sergeant and then worked my way up to a lieutenant. I spent a period of time as a lieutenant and then got promoted to assistant director, and then ultimately, director. So, a total of 30 going on 32 years.

Now, would you say your time working up the chain prepared you for being the director?

Absolutely. I know about every function that goes on in the jail. I've virtually worked at about every area in the jail and some outside of the jail. Along with that, I've been involved with the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, and I'm involved with the Justice Reform Acts, and some of the things that are taking place in initiatives that have gone forward. So, I try to stay focused on the courts, heavy involvement with the courts, along with the justice community, law enforcement, and then, you know, my core competency, which is the jail's functions.

You were telling me earlier that you're from Spokane, so can you just describe, you know, how you  grew up and your time in high school here?

Yeah. I was born here in Spokane, and I ultimately went to Shadle Park High School. Go Highlanders! And then I went into the military, served in the Army National Guard for six years. And then, at the completion of that, a friend of mine said, 'Hey, we should take the test for the jail and see if we can qualify for it.' So I did, and worked through my career here up to the point where I was a sergeant and then went back to college. I went to Eastern Washington University, and graduated there with a degree in business administration.

What is the most interesting part about being a jail director?

Well, definitely the diversity. There's something different going on every day. Just my involvement with the staff that we have, we have fantastic staff members here, and just being a part of their lives, and, you know, helping them to, make their working conditions the best that I can do. And also, it's, you know, it's a diversity within the offender segment as well, and my interactions with them to try to help them through, which is, quite honestly, the lowest point of their lives when they're in jail. And helping them get through the system, and then ultimately, through the courts, and then onto their feet, you know, whatever the disposition is. So, diversity is a fun part of it, and just being a part of the overall corrections experience, you know, there's a lot of new information coming out, there's a lot of best practices coming out, and just the opportunity to hold ourselves to those as it's been a good thing.

RELATED: Inmate who died Spokane Co. Jail in June overdosed, medical examiner says

Then what would you say is the most rewarding part of the job?

I think the most rewarding part of the job is just, you know, having my staff go home after a tour of duty, safe to their families, and doing my best to make the environment here a safe environment for not only the offenders, but all the staff as well. And then my involvement with the community has been super, I love interacting with the community. They are one of our primary stakeholders. So, anything new we can do to help, you know, make their experience a little bit better. You know, while they have a loved one incarcerated. Those are the type of things that I think are rewarding.

What about the jobs is challenging?

Some of the most challenging things that you deal with here. Obviously, for the Spokane area, is the opioid problem. Recently, we've had several people come in, have had drugs inside their body. So contraband has always been an issue that we struggle with here at the jail. We've done some research, and we met with the Board of County Commissioners. We're looking at some body scanners, one for here, one for out at Geiger, and then also we're going to implement a mail scanner, which will detect [contraband] taped on some boxes and the envelopes and those type of things. So contraband is a big challenge that we have. Another one is to stay current with best practices, you know, as we go through, we want to be on the cutting edge, we want to be on the, you know, out in front on offender reentry, you know, some of those initiatives. So obviously, we want to be involved with all the best practices that we can be involved with. Those are some of the greatest challenges. Another great challenge that we are facing is limited space. The jails have been overcrowded for several years. The bunks upstairs are double-bunked, which causes an enormous amount of stress on our staff and on the offenders. So yeah, those are the two primary stressors that we deal with right now; its the contraband and overcrowding.

Part 1:

As director, what kind of changes do you want to make to the Spokane County Jail?

So, some of the changes that I want to make immediately, I want to improve our supervision over the staff and over the inmates and improve that area. We've been working on some plans to do that. Part of it is not necessarily, you know, hiring new folks, its promoting folks within and increasing that promotional ladder, to give opportunity for the staff. We want to run the most efficient and the best jail in the state. And so we're focusing on our policies and we're focusing on our practices, and we're looking for those opportunities to be the best in our agency.

You said in a news conference earlier this year that Narcan has been used 50 times on inmates. Is this more than that's been used in previous years?

I can't really say if it's more than what's been used in previous years. It was 50 applications this year, to date, and some of those could have been multiple, you know, administered on one particular offender [multiple times.] So, what I would say, though, is that the staff do a tremendous job, being there, available, responding to emergencies when a particular offender goes down, or is in a crisis. A good example was the example that I used with this, which was, you know, two females went down in a particular dorm. They were witnessed by other occupants of the dorm, ingesting some white powder. Both of them succumbed to it. Our staff responded immediately, they administered the Narcan. Paramedics arrived, we got them loaded up into an ambulance, they went to the local hospital, and they were back within a couple of days. But you know, the drug addiction is so serious, that other people that were in the dorm and witnessed this whole, you know, event go down, also tried to use the same drug and one of them went down. We did the same steps and then sent them back. So, the Narcan has been, you know, a tremendous benefit to us. But I don't think it takes the place of the hard work of the staff and the quick responsiveness of our medical staff to be up there on the floor and help in these type of situations.

RELATED: Legal nonprofit report finds 20 deaths in Spokane Co. Jail in 11 year period

Do you think that the usage of Narcan will rise in the coming years? 

You know, I think it will, until we get a better grip on on the opioid problem in the Spokane region. We have a better understanding of, you know, the addiction and deal with the drug addiction firsthand. You know, maybe it's an increase in MAT program - medical assisted treatment - you know, within our facilities, and how is that best practiced? And how can we, you know, bring that into our facility even more than we're doing it now. I think that law enforcement certainly are, you know, coming across these type of things. It's like I said earlier, I think early detection has a lot to do with it, at least on the inside of the facility. We're hoping that the body scanners help us you know, discover those drugs that might be inside of a person, and therefore ward them off before they get there, get them medical attention, they need those type of things.

I say also about drugs entering the jail, are there planned changes coming in the next few months to either curb or stop the problem of drug entering the jail?

Absolutely. It's a great question. The Board of County Commissioners have been really invested in this this issue, we're facing of contraband getting into jail. They've been very supportive. They've allowed us to fund one body scanner for the Geiger facility, one for downtown, along with a mail scanner that will detect drugs coming in on parcels and those type of things. And then we've also ramped up our cell searches upstairs and involve K9 to help us do some of those searches. And then, we take a good review of our policies as well to see what we can do internally to help be more successful at detect them coming in.

Alright, so we've talked about Narcan saving people from drug overdoses and trying to stop drugs coming in. But are there any other ways you guys are trying to prevent drug overdose deaths? 

Well, there's always you know, there's other areas that we, you know, we look at. Whether it be correspondence to some of the folks. But primarily, those are the primary sources. It's coming through the front door, and then if they do get in the front door, how do we detect them once they get upstairs? So, those are two primary goals, I would say.

What policy do you have in place, or maybe any changes plan to prevent suicide?

So, suicide is is a big focus of ours as well. We've totally revised our policy on  it and the ways that we're handling it. We've had our staff go through additional training on suicide prevention, and what to look for and those type of things. We've replaced the bed sheets with some heavier duty, you know, smocks and some coveralls to try to ward off some of that. And it's just observation, we're doing 30 minute rounds. We've installed 30 minute round clocks on all of the floors to remind the officers, it's time to do their rounds. So, even when they're involved with some other incident that is taking their attention, they know to stop and go do these rounds to make sure that everybody's safe and secure.

Can you explain or give me an overview how the medical process works when an needs or request medical attention?

Absolutely. So first off, we have a contracted medical services out of Naphcare. It has provided wonderful service for us. Initially, when you come in, you will be given a screen by an RN to make sure that you're okay to come to jail, and if not, you know, whether its being involved in an accident, suffered a head injury or one of those types of thing, we're going to do our very best to make sure that you have your medical attention up front before you come to jail. Then once you come into the jail, you will undergo another, more in-depth, conversation with the medical staff, where they get at your background and get medical information from you,. Then once you're up on the floors, and if you're under medical attention, our nurses do a really good job of coming to the cells, administering medications or, you know, following up on any kind of the medical care that you should get. And then, if you're a person upstairs that needs medical attention, you simply submit a form that you're asking for medical attention, then we will respond to it.

Just a real quick follow up. So is Naphcare, are they based in the jail or do they come in from outside when you call them, or is there somebody stationed here? Is there like a medical staff that's housed here? 

So yes, Naphcare's home base is here. We have, you know, regular nurses that go through the process, and we do our background investigation. And we have some full-time here, some to Geiger. They have rotating shifts.

So overcrowding is an issue nationwide that is talking about when it comes to jails. Is that something that's happening in Spokane as well?

Absolutely. We've been overcrowded for quite a period of time. Like I stated earlier, Geiger serves as our overflow, but they can only handle a niche type of inmate out at Geiger. So, the rest of them reside here. One thing I think it's important for the community to realize is that the jail takes the ones that we have to take. The court decides and we have them in our jail. If they have a felony, we're obligated to take them. So, a lot of what you see, you know, a lot of folks are under the misconception that the jail overcrowds itself, or that we have something to do with the overcrowding, but we are the product of the courts and what is given to us and we had to find a bed for them.

So to kind of go off of overcrowding, what about staffing? Is that an issue or are you always looking at recruiting? Are you guys fully staffed? How's that looking?

Yeah, our staffing levels, we're always recruiting and we'd like to get our staffing numbers up higher, if e could. It's finding qualified applicants. They can come work here, but I would welcome anyone that is interested in coming to work for us to visit our website, look at the hiring process and see if they might be a good fit for our agency.