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Pierce County Jail Sued

On January 19, 1995, a class action suit was filed against Pierce County (Tacoma, Washington) concerning massive overcrowding at its jail. The jail was built in 1984 and designed to hold 470 prisoners, it was later remodeled to hold 628. On January 17, 1995, the jail held 1,026 prisoners, more than 400 beyond its design capacity. Since 1989 Pierce County has operated a satellite jail in a national guard armory which holds 154 prisoners. Despite massive overcrowding the jail holds prisoners from other jurisdictions (federal government, cities, etc.) on a rent-a-cell basis.

The overcrowding requires that many prisoners in the jail sleep on mattress pads on the floor. Prisoners spend between 2-4 weeks sleeping on the floor until they acquire seniority to be assigned a bunk. Prisoners lose their seniority if they are moved to another unit. This happens frequently which results in some prisoners spending months sleeping on the floor. Even obviously pregnant women are forced to sleep on the floor under these conditions.

The suit contends that forcing people to sleep on the floor for prolonged periods of time creates an unreasonable risk of injury to the prisoners. The risk results from tripping over mattress pads and because the lack of privacy enhances the tension in the units, the risk of being assaulted increases. Many assaults arise from one prisoner stepping on another's mattress pad.

The overcrowding has resulted in the jail classification system ceasing to exist. Detainees charged with serious felonies such as rape, murder, etc. are assigned to live with pretrial misdemeanor detainees and sentenced misdemeanants serving sentences for nonviolent offenses such as traffic offenses, failing to pay fines, etc. Mentally ill detainees, very young, etc. prisoners are housed together in the general population. In one unit, male and female prisoners are housed together in the same unit, in individual cells, and share the same shower. Staffing levels have not kept up with the jail's population increase resulting in inadequate supervision which results in heightened risks to staff and prisoners.

The complaint alleges that the overcrowding has resulted in a number of prisoners being assaulted. The stress and assaults are directly related to the overcrowding and understaffing at the jail. Medical care at the jail is, in the words of a consultant hired by the jail, a "nonsystem." The jail's health care program is disorganized, lacks sufficient staff and fails to meet the community standard of health care. Medical staff are not adequately trained or supervised and the staffing levels are grossly inadequate for the jail's population level, and has been for many years. The jail does not even provide 24 hour a day medical staff coverage. Jail guards, with no medical training, are required to evaluate medical emergencies that arise in the evenings or on weekends. Prisoners wait days or weeks after requesting medical care before they are seen by medical staff, in many cases they do not see a doctor. There is no "in person" medical requests, so prisoners who can't write or who don't speak English are unable to access jail medical care.

Dental and mental health care at the jail is inadequate and minimal. Mental health "treatment" consists almost entirely of giving prisoners drugs. "Because of the defendants' policy and practice of providing inadequate staffing levels, anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, or sleep medications are often prescribed by the physician or physicians assistant without them actually seeing the patient first and without assurance that a psychiatrist would see the patient in a follow up visit." Likewise, there is no contagious disease control or monitoring. Many prisoners in general population have active stage TB.

The suit also challenges the jail's practice of charging prisoners a fee each time they seek medical attention. The practice is dangerous because it forces indigent prisoners to chose between purchasing basic hygiene supplies and seeking necessary medical attention.

Sanitation in the jail is grossly inadequate to cope with the number of prisoners it now houses. The j ail also violates prisoners' right of access to the courts because it does not provide law library access or the assistance of persons trained in the law for detainees seeking to pursue civil litigation. The suit also alleges that excessive force is used by guards on a routine basis and that the j ail has no functional grievance system to resolve complaints administratively.

The suit seeks relief under the state and federal constitutions and several statutes. The complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy the above problems and attorney fees. The suit was filed by counsel for Evergreen Legal Services and the Puget Sound Legal Assistance Foundation. The case is assigned to Judge Burgess in Tacoma, see: Herrera v. Pierce County, WA., et al., C95-5025FDB.

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Related legal case

Herrera v. Pierce County, WA