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Inmate Suicide Prompts Polk County Jail to Change Watch Guard Policies

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- The suicide of Mikel Van Arkel is one his family is still having a hard time coming to terms with.

"He was a father, he was a brother, a nephew. We just want to remember and let it be known that we don’t want this to happen to anyone else. He wasn’t perfect. He was in jail," said Van Arkle's aunt, Cindy Wood.

Wood said her nephew should have been treated like a human being after she says the jail did not notify the family hours after Van Arkle committed suicide.

The 31-year-old was booked to the Polk County Jail on Aug. 22, 2014 on domestic abuse charges. The following day, he was found hanging in his jail cell by a bed sheet.

"We just wanted answers. Suicide leaves so many questions but where he died he should have had some answers," said Wood.

On Sunday, Wood and about 20 other family and friends held a candle light vigil outside the Polk County Jail to remember Van Arkle, or "Boo" as he was commonly known as.

The Polk County Jail said while suicides at the facility happen about once a year, it doesn't take the issue lightly. Officials say they are always looking for improvements when it comes to screening and monitoring inmates.

At the time of booking, all inmates are evaluated and asked a series of physical and mental health questions including, "Are you currently suicidal or have you been suicidal in the past?"

Sgt. Brandon Bracelin with the Polk County Sheriff's Office said according to Van Arkle's documents, he showed "no signs of concern."

Bracelin said the inmate was placed into a 24 hour pre-classification holding cell where a watch guard checked on him every 30 minutes.

As a result of his death, the Polk County Jail now requires watch guards to make contact with inmates every 15 minutes. The jail also changed the layout of the holding cells.

"Before, the pre–classification unit was closed cell doors. We moved that to an open pod environment, they have a bunkmate which helps considerably," Bracelin said.

However, Van Arkel's family says fewer time between cell checks wouldn't have helped him because they claim he was being denied his methadone treatments. They believe his withdrawals caused him to commit suicide.

This year, there has been one suicide at the jail.

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