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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published February 16 2013

Grand Forks County jail guards honored for preventing suicide

GRAND FORKS - One day last year, Grand Forks County Correctional Center Officer Rod Kelley discovered an inmate trying to hang himself inside his cell.

With adrenaline pumping, Kelley and another inmate quickly freed the victim from a makeshift noose and performed CPR.

On a separate occasion, as Officer Preston Engstrom was performing a well-being check on another inmate with a history of attempted suicides, he discovered a pool of blood on the mattress. The inmate apparently had cut himself with the metal piece that connects a wooden pencil with its eraser.

Both inmates, who were rushed to Altru Hospital, ultimately survived their suicide attempts.

For their actions, Kelley and Engstrom recently received lifesaving awards from jail Administrator Bret Burkholder.

“Both of these officers did what they were trained to do,” he said. “They assessed the situations, acted quickly and had a positive outcome.”

While the facility sees many suicide attempts annually, these are just the third and fourth awards given since Burkholder started at the jail in 2007. The first two awards were given to officers intervening in a suicide attempt several years ago.

Four other officers received commendations for their assistance in the two incidents last year.

The jail recorded suicide attempts by nine different inmates, some of them numerous times, between December 2011 and November 2012. Twelve inmates made attempts in a similar period between 2009 and 2010. Precise numbers were not available for 2010, and the state does not keep track of the statistics, according to Burkholder.

Kelley, a former Marine who has been working at the county jail since it opened in 2006, has responded to suicide attempts before. Some are more serious than others.

This time, he knew the situation was dire.

He was escorting a group of prisoners from a recreation area back to their cells when they noticed an inmate in a cell with a towel wrapped around his neck.

“With the help of one of the inmates, I was able to get the ligature out from around the individual’s neck,” Kelley said. “I laid him down on the floor and checked for a pulse and breath, and I started CPR. One of the other officers had arrived by the time I had started CPR on him. Then, a third officer brought in the (defibrillator) for precautionary measures.”

Grand Forks Fire and Rescue units arrived within 9 minutes, he said, followed closely by Altru Ambulance.

The inmate was treated and eventually was returned to the correctional center.

“I’m not a doctor by any means, but I know how grave that situation was,” Burkholder said of Kelley’s case. “That individual was not expected to live. You can only imagine, had he not done as good a job as he did, what the consequences would have been. It was his prompt response to it and applying the right techniques that really reiterates the training that we do.”

Engstrom’s case involved an inmate who had a history of suicide attempts, according to Burkholder.

“I had been working in the booking area, where there are holding cells, serving dinner meals,” Engstrom said. “After you give them their fair amount of time to eat, you go to collect the trays from each cell. I noticed that this particular individual had left his tray toward the back of his cell. So, I opened the door and went into retrieve it. I heard a strange noise and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

“So I looked over and he was underneath his blanket. I couldn’t quite see what was going on, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. I went over and peeked over his blanket and noticed a couple of droplets of blood, but I couldn’t see much else.

“I tried to take the blanket off of him. He had it wrapped pretty tightly over his body. I tried my best to remove it, and it was then that I noticed a large pool of blood in his mattress.”

Engstrom, who started at the jail in 2009 with a criminal justice degree from UND, went to the door and called for a supervisor, who was just a few feet away. They called for more assistance and moved the inmate to the floor, away from the bunk area.

“He was struggling with us and fighting, so we couldn’t really see where he was bleeding from,” he said.

They finally saw what Engstrom described as a gash near the inmate’s elbow. Engstrom placed pressure on the cut to stop the bleeding until a medical crew arrived.

Jail staff searched the inmate and his cell for weeks before finally learning the source of the cut, a tiny piece of metal.

Since then, the facility has switched to rubber pencils, with no metal parts, according to Burkholder.

“You train officers on their observation skills,” he said. “In that situation, while that situation was being watched, for different reasons, it was his acute observation of something that might seem really minor. But knowing the history behind that individual, he took it upon himself to investigate it more, and found a very resistive inmate that had seriously injured himself.”