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Detention Officer Saves Inmate From Suicide Attempt

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MISSOULA - Quick actions on the part of a detention officer at the Missoula County Jail saved an inmate from a suicide attempt.

Detective Paige Pavalone said suicide attempts at the jail unfortunately are common, and detention officers must have the mental strength to keep inmates-- and themselves-- out of harm's way.

Pavalone said Detention Officer Michelle vanHalen was conducting a mandatory cell check.

"She was walking through one of the housing cells, and looked in and noticed that the inmate had hanged himself with a pair of pants."

Acting quickly, Officer vanHalen made an emergency code over the radio, summoning more officers and emergency responders. Pavalone said the 42-year-old man, in jail on drug charges, was limp and blue in the face, but he had a pulse.

"After a few days, he came around when he was expected to not make it, and he's been returned to the jail, so her actions saved his life," she said.

As a former detention officer at jail, Pavalone said she can attest to how emotionally challenging the job can be.

"And you have to maintain composure and professionalism when you're working with the offender population," she said.

Pavalone said losing contact with their families, income and impending court dates affect the mental stability of inmates as well.

"They are going through a series of emotional challenges themselves."

Because suicide attempts are so common, Pavalone said the jail is forced to take some precautions.

"Each of the control rooms are equipped with knives to cut down people if they ever tether sheets."

She said inmates go through an intake questionnaire. If a person admits they plan on harming themselves, officers can monitor them for signs of suicidal behavior.

"They've got camera cells, they've got padded cells, suicide smocks and things in place to keep them safe."

The Missoula County Jail includes a long term juvenile detention center, a jail for men and women and a state regional prison. It houses 400 people.
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