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Story Publication logo June 14, 2024

At the Eagle County Jail, People in Mental Health Crises Face Fear, Trauma


A community made a huge investment in mental health response.


A review of Eagle County police use of force on mentally disturbed people who, if jailed, are sometimes isolated and put in full-body restraints with limited access to crisis support

The entrance of the Eagle County Detention Center in Eagle. Image by Chris Dillmann | Vail Daily archive. United States, undated.

Editor’s note: This article discusses death by suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it triggering. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact your physician, go to your local emergency room, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or Your Hope Center’s 24/7 crisis line at 970-306-4673.

In May of 2021, a woman in the Eagle County jail had just come out of a visit with a local mental health service provider and was “visibly upset” as she went to attend a court hearing, according to a use-of-force report detailing the incident. 

When she began hitting her head against the wall, arguing with deputies and talking about suicide, deputies from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office responded by ordering her to stop, pulling her from the hearing and walking her back to her holding cell, the report stated. 

When she began to harm herself again, deputies forcibly held her in her bunk and called the jail’s medical personnel and then put her in a full-body restraint known as “the WRAP” — a harness that wraps a person’s legs together and locks their torso in an upright, seated position. 

In this restraint, a person’s hands are cuffed, often behind the back. This woman, whose name was redacted from the police report, was also stripped of her jail uniform and placed in a single-piece “suicide smock.” 

When she began to harm herself again, deputies forcibly held her in her bunk and called the jail’s medical personnel and then put her in a full-body restraint known as “the WRAP” — a harness that wraps a person’s legs together and locks their torso in an upright, seated position. 

In this restraint, a person’s hands are cuffed, often behind the back. This woman, whose name was redacted from the police report, was also stripped of her jail uniform and placed in a single-piece “suicide smock.” 

This story is published as part of Fateful Encounters, an ongoing investigative collaboration between MindSite News, the Medill School of Journalism, Media & Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, and local news outlets including Vail Daily exploring police response to mental health crises. Illustration by Eric Turner.

This is just one of 66 cases in 2021 and 2022 of force being used on people with mental health issues by Eagle County police and sheriff’s deputies, according to an investigation by the Vail Daily and MindSite News

Many of these incidents occurred on calls where police were dispatched in response to allegations of illegal activity and indicated in reports that the person had an underlying mental health issue. 

The use of force was most common in the Eagle County jail, where incarcerated people deemed to be at risk of harming themselves were isolated, restrained and placed in smocks. There have been at least four deaths by suicide at the jail since 2019.  

Practices like isolation and the use of restraints are common in jails and prisons nationwide, which lack the resources to meet the needs of mentally ill people, according to Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has spent decades studying conditions in detention facilities across the country. 

In another incident, a man was ordered to change into a smock when he was placed on suicide watch upon entering the Eagle County jail. He refused, laying down and “passively” resisting. A sheriff’s deputy responded by pressing her taser into the man’s back as another deputy removed his clothes and underwear. The deputy told the inmate “if he resisted at all, that I would tase him,” according to her report of the incident. 

The man was then placed in solitary confinement until Your Hope Center could send a clinician to see him, according to the use-of-force report. 

Since the start of 2021, Your Hope Center has deployed specially trained clinicians to respond to mental health crises alongside Eagle County police and paramedics, including in the jail. Like others nationwide, this “co-response” program aims to stabilize people and connect them to mental health support within the community, keeping them out of hospitals and jail, said Teresa Haynes, clinical director of Your Hope Center. 

“People come out of jails and prisons worse off than they went in, and then the community absorbs that in whatever way it can, which oftentimes means there is a kind of revolving door taking place in which people come out and very quickly go back in,” said Haney, the psychology professor and researcher. 

But as of Jan. 1, Your Hope Center is no longer providing crisis evaluations at the jail due to a change in the nonprofit’s insurance coverage, said Executive Director Carrie Benway. This removed the only in-person emergency mental health care available to people being held there. 

The jail now contracts with Correctional Psychology Associates to offer virtual crisis care, jail Commander Elizabeth Sanchez said.

Restrained and in crisis 

Deputies in the jail reported using force against incarcerated people with mental health issues 18 times from 2021 through June of 2023, according to a review of reports from the Sheriff’s Office. They used the WRAP or a restraint chair more than half of the time, restraining people for one to three hours, and regularly checked on their blood circulation, according to the reports. 

Graphic by Amanda Swanson/Vail Daily.

The safety of the restraint has been called into question after a 2022 investigation by the news outlet Capital & Main found that the manufacturer’s safety claims were “largely based on anecdotal evidence and one disputed study.” 

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is one of more than 1,500 authorities across the country that use the WRAP, according to Capital & Main. Despite being on the market for 25 years, the United States has no “testing requirements, safety guidelines or certifications” for the WRAP, or other full-body restraint systems like it. 

“It’s been effective for us and it’s safer for the deputies. It’s safer for the inmates,” Sheriff James van Beek said in an interview. “We haven’t had anyone, to my knowledge, have any kind of negative experience using the WRAP.”

The Capital & Main investigation identified 10 lawsuits filed by families whose loved ones died in police custody during incidents involving the WRAP since 2000. The CEO of Safe Restraints, the technology’s manufacturer, told Capital & Main that any issues with the WRAP come from a drug overdose, delayed medical care or misuse of the equipment. 

Eagle County jail deputies are instructed to “reevaluate” using the WRAP after two continuous hours and must move the person’s limbs around at least once every two hours to help with blood flow, according to a statement from van Beek. Reports show multiple instances in which the WRAP was used for over two hours without noting that the restraint was released to allow the person to move their arms and legs. 

In response to questions, Sheriff van Beek said deputies are not required to document these actions in their reports and that he is not aware of any complaints of deputies not following this policy. 

With the woman restrained in May of 2021, deputies noted in their use-of-force report that they initially placed her in the WRAP incorrectly. Even after they adjusted it, she wriggled her way out, kicking off the bottom portion and sitting cross-legged on the floor crying, according to the report. 

The WRAP as advertised on the Safe Restraints website.

Many authorities purchased the WRAP over the years to avoid other controversial restraint techniques like the “hogtie and hobble methods.” 

In 2020, Avon police officers used the “hobble” — a multi-piece restraint developed by RIPP Restraints International — on a young Latino man who was intoxicated and suffering from a mental health crisis. Police on the scene determined that the man had ingested a large amount of pills.

When restrained this way, the person is placed in handcuffs and their feet are bound. Sometimes, a belt is used to bind their hands to their legs or to “hogtie” someone by tying bound ankles to cuffed hands in a 90-degree angle while they are lying on their stomach. Hog-tying was found to be too dangerous for continued use by the U.S. Department of Justice as early as 1996. 

Eagle County police leaders said they only use the RIPP Hobble in alignment with the guidelines set forth by its manufacturer, which advises against the hogtie. 

The Avon man was crying and could barely hold his head up when police spoke with him, an Avon Police officer stated in his report. While lying on the ground, he hit a nearby dresser with his fist and began “kicking” and “squirming.” Avon Police responded by rolling the man on his stomach and handcuffing his hands behind his back, according to a use of force report.

This position poses a risk of death by asphyxiation, especially if the individual is intoxicated, according to research by the Department of Justice. This risk — known as “sudden custody death syndrome” was recognized by one of the officers and the man was quickly rolled onto his side and then sat up, according to his report. 

Officers subsequently moved the man back to his stomach to place the RIPP Hobble restraint on his ankles and remained at his side while holding the belt attached to his ankles, according to their reports of the incident.

Asked about this incident, Avon Police Chief Greg Daly said he had spoken with one of the responding officers and relayed how important it was that the subject be “sat up immediately to avoid any positional asphyxia concerns.”

“We train all of our officers on this very topic, and I am highly confident that is what occurred,” Daly said in the written statement. 

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Avon, Vail and Eagle Police departments all reported using the RIPP Hobble on people in a state of emotional distress, according to hundreds of pages of use-of-force reports reviewed by the Vail Daily and MindSite News. 

Both the RIPP Hobble restraint and the WRAP remain in use in Eagle County today. 

A set of cells at the Eagle County Detention Center in Eagle. Addressing use-of-force incidents at the facility, Sheriff James van Beek said: “It can be very traumatic for people coming into the detention facility, they completely start losing their mind. People don’t know how to act and behave quite often in the jail and so they’re in the detention facility and all of a sudden that escalates it.” Image by Chris Dillmann | [email protected]. United States, undated.

Police use of force on mental health-related calls 

In Eagle County, police are automatically dispatched first when a mental health-related call comes into the dispatch center. They can call for assistance from a Your Hope Center clinician while they are en route or after assessing the scene, according to interviews with law enforcement. 

This means that police are often tasked with identifying when an issue is mental health-related and talking with the person in crisis to keep them calm until the mental health professional arrives. Most patrol officers in Eagle County have received mental health de-escalation training from CIT International, according to records provided by law enforcement agencies. 

Graphic by Amanda Swanson/Vail Daily.

Across Eagle Valley, mental health-related calls comprised up to a third of all use-of-force cases, according to an analysis of use-of-force reports from the valley’s three main police departments and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. 

Uses of force ranged from police grabbing people’s handcuffed arms as they escorted them to an ambulance or squad car to police using tasers on people and pointing firearms at them, according to the reports.

Vail Police Chief Ryan Kenney acknowledged that a significant portion of his agency’s uses of force occur while interacting with people in crisis (17%), but said that this is changing. 

“Now, we’ll do what we can to stop them from hurting themselves,” Kenney said. “But we don’t want to use force to try to stop people from hurting themselves. It’s just counterintuitive.”

Police are trained to try and verbally de-escalate situations before resorting to force, Daly said. In deciding how to respond, officers must weigh whether a person is doing something illegal or is becoming combative, he said. In many of the cases analyzed by the Vail Daily and MindSite News, police reports allege that crimes were committed, ranging from trespassing to felony menacing and assault.

If someone has mental health problems and is not receiving the care they need, they are more likely to end up doing something illegal, even if it is “only vaguely illegal,” like being on private property, said Haney, the psychology professor and criminal justice researcher. 

He added that because police in the U.S. are not generally trained to seek an understanding of why someone may be doing something illegal, mentally ill people often end up in jails and prisons. 

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office reported that its deputies used force 122 times during 2021 and 2022 and one-third of them occurred in the course of responding to mental health-related calls, many of which involved allegations of law-breaking activity.

When looking just at incidents at the county jail, this rate jumps to 44% — probably because the jail is a “high-stress environment,” Sheriff van Beek said.  

“It can be very traumatic for people coming into the detention facility, they completely start losing their mind,” he said. “People don’t know how to act and behave quite often in the jail and so they’re in the detention facility and all of a sudden that escalates it.”

Being held in jail or prison is traumatic for anyone, but especially for people already struggling with their mental health, said Haney, who has visited hundreds of facilities throughout his career. 

Environments of ‘forceful control’

“These are places which have always been premised on forceful control, (and) that hold people who don’t want to be there, hold them against their will,” Haney said. “In order to do that, they have mastered the technique of controlling people — usually in a forceful and dehumanizing way.”

This does not leave much room for the kind of therapeutic response that someone in the middle of a mental health crisis needs to stabilize or improve, Haney said. 

“It’s this disjuncture between the core mission of a correctional facility and the needs of increasingly large numbers of people who are mentally ill and whose mental illness may in fact be the cause of their custody,” he said. 

When someone is in crisis or has a serious mental illness, their ability to follow orders is severely diminished, said Haynes of Your Hope Center.

The woman placed in a WRAP at the Eagle County jail was expected to follow orders even as she was actively self-harming. When she failed to do so, she was subjected to punitive measures. Not until she was alone in her cell “screaming and crying” did deputies notify Your Hope Center to come evaluate her. 

Jail Commander Sanchez said her deputies receive the 40-hour CIT training course, which provides crisis intervention training to police. 

The jail’s main health care provider, Wellpath, provides a mental health professional who sees clients in scheduled visits 16 hours out of the week, the jail’s administrative supervisor, Sarah Kennedy, said in an October interview. The jail contracts with a bilingual mental health counselor who is available for an additional 20 hours of scheduled visits. 

People in the jail can also meet with the facility’s bilingual case manager, who helps them understand their options and connects them with resources like Your Hope Center upon leaving the facility, Sanchez said. They also have access to a weekly substance abuse recovery program offered by a peer support specialist from Mind Springs Health. Some Western Slope communities have cut ties with Mind Springs over concerns of low-quality care and care access. 

Inmates can also be removed from the jail and taken to a behavioral health facility if a bed is available — but only with approval from Sanchez and a mental health provider as well as the judge, district attorney and defense attorneys involved in the person’s case. Your Hope Center used to play a key role in advocating for this before it discontinued service to the jail, according to Haynes. 

The methods used to control mentally ill incarcerated people and keep them from harming themselves on a day-to-day basis would not be tolerated outside of jail, said Haney, the psychology professor. 

“The jail should be proud of the fact that it … at least in theory has access to that mental health professional response,” Haney said. However, “we should not kid ourselves into thinking that we’ve solved the problem or we’ve treated somebody with mental illness the way that — if that person was somebody we really cared about — we’d be satisfied with.”

“If it was somebody you genuinely cared about, it wouldn’t be good enough. And it shouldn’t be good enough.”

Funding for this story was provided by the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.


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