Inmate who killed himself in Whatcom County Jail identified

The Whatcom County Courthouse in downtown Bellingham attaches to the Whatcom County Jail where an inmate hanged himself Monday morning, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.
The Whatcom County Courthouse in downtown Bellingham attaches to the Whatcom County Jail where an inmate hanged himself Monday morning, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. The Bellingham Herald file

An inmate hanged himself Monday morning in the Whatcom County Jail, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

Around 11 a.m., deputies were notified of an incident when other inmates activated a panic alarm in a general population cell block. They found a man, who was later identified as Kirk Daniel Powless, 38, unresponsive in his cell.

Powless had made a noose out of his shirt and jammed it into a cell door, according to the sheriff’s office. In the general population areas, inmates are free to move around the cell block and can open or close their own doors, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said. They are expected to be checked on every 20 minutes, he said.

Deputies and jail medical staff started CPR, as well as other life-saving efforts such as administering Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, but Powless was pronounced dead at the scene around 11:30 a.m. by paramedics.

Whatcom County medical examiner Dr. Gary Goldfogel said Powless’ death was the result of asphyxia by ligature hanging and ruled it as a suicide. There have been three other suicides at the Whatcom County Jail in the last decade, according to officials.

Elfo said Powless was not on suicide watch, had been in and out of jail previously, and had no prior history of mental health issues or suicidal tendencies. Powless had previous felony convictions dating back to 2003, and was most recently booked into jail May 30 on suspicion of identity theft, second-degree possession of stolen property and possession of a controlled substance other than marijuana. Elfo said he didn’t know if Powless was detoxing.

Since Powless’ death, the sheriff’s office has brought in behavioral health specialists to talk to inmates who were within the vicinity, as well as support officers to provide confidential counseling for the jail's medical staff and deputies, Elfo said.

“When that happens, the people that work up there take it very, very hard. We make those services available to them and we’re reaching out to the family to make sure they receive whatever support they need,” Elfo said. "Our sympathy and condolences go out to the family."

While the inmates have access to behavioral health specialists, much of the counseling isn’t confidential and is done in the cell blocks through the food slot in cell doors, according to Elfo and jail staff. Elfo said this has been labeled as a deficiency in the jail going back several years.

“It’s a concern we have and continue to have. There’s a lack of an environment conducive to people being fully candid about underlying medical or mental health issues,” he said.

Elfo said there’s little available space, but sometimes staff are able to take people to a more private and secure area. Elfo said they they are looking at some temporary improvements to provide more privacy within the parameters of the current space at the jail.

Whatcom County officials will spend some $16 million over the next few years to repair the current County Jail, after two failed attempts to raise taxes for a new multi-use corrections facility that they say is desperately needed.

The Bellingham Police Department has been asked to conduct an investigation into Powless’ death, and will coordinate with the medical examiner to determine time of death and when he was last seen alive. The investigation will be reviewed by the prosecutor’s office, the sheriff’s office said.

“It’s something we’re going to critique and find out to ensure we’ve adhered to all our policies and procedures in this particular case and see what improvements may be made in the future,” Elfo said.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Online: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt