The new director of the Spokane County Jail talks crowding, the bail system and the string of deaths that have occurred inside the facility

click to enlarge DEREK HARRISON PHOTO
Derek Harrison photo

Over 31 years, Mike Sparber has climbed the ladder inside the Spokane County Jail, from officer, sergeant, lieutenant, assistant director, interim director and, as of last week, the new director overseeing both the downtown facility and Geiger Corrections Center in Airway Heights. He sat down with us on Monday to discuss the new challenges ahead.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and space.

INLANDER: What do you wish the public understood better about your job and the state of the county jail?

SPARBER: I would like the public to understand: One, that ... we are essentially the holding facility for the courts' decisions [and] law enforcement. ... We don't have discretion at who comes and who goes. Our responsibility is to combine [people] together in a humane fashion. ...

And second, along with that, the jail is overcrowded. It's been overcrowded for many, many years and that is a direct consequence of what we are asked to hold within our facilities. Our floors are not operating as they are designed to, as a direct-supervision [model], which is one of our primary focuses this year.

If a new jail is part of the solution, how do you convince critics who say we're locking up too many people?

Again... we're responsible for holding them once they are locked up. So those arguments should be made to the court, to the prosecutor, to the public defender. We get the residual amount. We get what the system gives us.

But you're also right here, making an argument for a jail. So, convince me.

The current facility we have right now cannot hold all the population we have right now. It's not meant to be run that way. In 1988, it was designed to be a new generation jail, which is a direct-supervision jail, and everyone in the building is operating in a manner that is consistent and all the same walls that go along with overcrowding. It's checking individual cells 30 minutes at a time, rather than having them all out. ... There's a better, more humane way to do it.

What's your position on the cash bail system, which has been criticized for keeping poor people locked up during court proceedings while the rich walk free?

I'm not a fan of the cash bail system. That being said, I think there's a place for it. I don't think we have developed a robust enough system for it not to be in place. I've seen offenders being held in jail for a $100 bond, and I believe it's a tragedy. I believe there are other ways to get them out of the facility, but I don't think they've been developed yet.

I know that they do have the bail bond project, which I think has been going very well. ... Again, we're at the mercy of the courts because the bond is established by the court. So, that's kind of a long, short, hopefully politically correct answer.

There have been nine deaths inside the county jail since June 2017. What specific and concrete policies or procedures have been changed in light of that?

The deaths were all caused by different causes of death. There wasn't one particular type. Some of it was attributed to drug overdoses. ... A lot of the things we're encountering are what we believe are [hidden] inside the body. They make their way into the jail and, for whatever reason, it ends up costing the individual's death or near death.

Along with that, we're doing frequent cell searches and we're also involving the K-9 unit and then education for our staff on what to look for.

On the suicide prevention side of it, we had an expert come in. ... He made several recommendations that we've been following through — improvement in our policies, more frequent rounds. We added a "round clock" to remind officers of their time to do rounds. We've educated them in suicide prevention. ... We are getting out, paying more attention, doing more rounds and making sure that we're looking for those critical signs. ♦

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About The Author

Jacob H. Fries

Jacob H. Fries is the editor of the Inlander. In that position, he oversees editorial coverage of the paper and occasionally contributes his own writing. Before joining the paper, he wrote for numerous publications, including the Tampa Bay Times, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He grew up in Spokane Valley...