Jim Kowalczyk


William A. Ball was convicted in Chippewa County Court on April 6, 2011, of killing Kyle Ryba in the village of Boyd. Eleven days later, 22-year-old Ball took his own life in the jail.

Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk said Ball — like financier Jeff Epstein — was not on suicide watch at the time. Epstein, 66, apparently killed himself Saturday at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York while being investigated on charges of sex trafficking.

“He was our best inmate,” Kowalczyk said of Ball. “He was the last guy I would have suspected of harming himself.”

Since Ball’s death more than eight years ago, Kowalczyk said he can’t even recall a suicide attempt in his jail. He credits much of that to changes in the building to work with every inmate when they are incarcerated. When inmates are brought into the jail, they are immediately interviewed so jail staff can observe their state of mind.

“If someone mentions they are suicidal, we make a decision. We call Northwest Passage (a nonprofit organization that works on mental health issues), and they can do an evaluation,” Kowalczyk said. “We look at past arrests, and how they’ve answered those questions in the past.”

On average two or three inmates are placed on suicide watch every week, he added. Jailers are required to closely monitor those individuals.

“We do hourly, manual walk-through of the cells,” Kowalczyk said. “We do everything possible to prevent it.”

The jail staff can require a commitment order. If need be, an inmate will be placed in a padded cell, and the inmate will be dressed in a “suicide smock” attire.

“It is tear-proof with no sleeves,” Kowalczyk explained. “There is nothing on that they can use in aiding to hurt themselves.”

The Chippewa County Jail is set up so the control center is in the middle of the room, and jailers can see into all the pods. Kowalczyk said the cell blocks are constantly monitored, adding that there are 122 cameras in the building.

Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer said his jail had a suicide attempt when someone purposely jumped off a second-tier of the jail to a lower level. He said they had suicide cases in the old jail.

“We (now) have a better facility for watching these people,” he said.

Like Kowalczyk, Cramer said his staff is doing a good identifying potential suicide cases.

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“Since we have been able to get a mental health nurse in the jail, it’s eased those situations,” Cramer said. “We ask the question at bookings, ‘Are you suicidal or have suicidal thoughts?’ We also ask about mental health.”

The new Eau Claire County Jail includes several individual holding cells near the booking areas where inmates can be closely monitored. Jailers follow state standards of checking on suicidal inmates at least every 15 minutes.

“We also have a padded cell for someone who is really in crisis,” Cramer said. “And taking away things that they can use to harm themselves is a feat in itself, because people do get creative.”

Jailers take their duty seriously, Cramer added. Along with watching inmates, jailers deal with food and medication distribution, and getting inmates to services in the building or meetings with their attorney, as well as court appearances.

“We’re dealing with human life, and liability, and we want them treated humanely while they are here,” he said. “No one wants that to happen. No one wants to be in a situation where they are looked at like they did something wrong.”

Cramer said they have been successful in monitoring inmates, to the point where the jail captain has done audits and reviews of other jails to make recommendations on how they can improve.

Barron County Jail Captain Tim Evenson said they did have a suicide in their facility two or three years ago. Like the other law enforcement officials, Evenson said that screening at booking is the largest part of suicide prevention. He added that they frequently have at least one person on suicide watch.

“Sometimes it’s two-three a week, sometimes it’s one every other week,” he said.

The jail, which opened in 2004, also has a “robust video system” which allows jailers to watch what is happening throughout the building.

In the case of Ball’s death in 2011, he killed himself by taking a plastic bag from a trash can and placed it over his head, using it to asphyxiate himself. The jail no longer provides bags to prevent that from occurring again.

While an initial autopsy was inconclusive, Epstein appeared to have hanged himself in his jail cell.

Epstein’s death has led to criticism from lawmakers, who question how he was able to kill himself just two weeks after marks were found on his neck and he was considered to be a suicide risk; he was not on suicide watch at the time of his death. The federal prison will be under investigation by the FBI and Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office, according to Attorney General William Barr.

Epstein had pleaded not guilty to charges of trafficking and sexually abusing girls as young as age 14 in the early 2000s.

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