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Pierce County (Tacoma) Jail Suit Settled

In the February, 1995, issue of PLN we reported the filing of Herrera v. Pierce County, a class action suit challenging overcrowding and various other unconstitutional conditions at the Pierce County jail in Tacoma, Washington. The suit was settled in mid 1996 in three separate stipulated orders. The settlement results in significant gains for Tacoma jail detainees.

Crowding: The first stipulated order, which provides for enforcement as a preliminary injunction, sets strict population limits on the number of detainees that can be held in the existing jail. The settlement requires the closing, by July 1, 1996, of a temporary jail erected in a local National Guard armory, and limits the population in the main county jail to no more than 772 prisoners. In the event the jail population exceeds that number due to circumstances beyond the defendants' control, it must be reduced by the next business day. "Defendants shall be in violation of this order whenever defendants violate the conditions set forth in paragraph 3.4, or whenever the population exceeds unacceptable numbers for more than 48 hours."

Beds: The settlement requires that any jail beds installed must provide safety to the occupant, including, but not limited, to being suicide resistant by not providing an anchor point for prisoners to hang themselves from.

"No prisoner ... shall be required to sleep directly on the floor or other surface without a mattress for any period of time, except for medical reasons upon the express written order of a physician who has personally examined the prisoner." Jail prisoners cannot be required to sleep on a mattress on the floor for more than 72 hours during any stay at the jail.

Prisoners in medical and psychiatric housing areas of the jail are not to be assigned to floor mattresses except upon written direction of licensed medical staff. Prisoners who report a special medical condition at booking, including but not limited to: pregnancy, serious back pain or recent surgery, will not be assigned to a floor mattress absent written direction from licensed medical staff. Likewise, prisoners reporting medical conditions at booking such as epilepsy or conditions affecting mobility, won't be assigned to upper bunks unless at the written direction of licensed medical staff. All prisoners in temporary or interim facilities must be given a bed. The defendants agreed to track and record which prisoners were assigned to floor mattresses and for how long. Plaintiffs' counsel was to be notified if any prisoner was kept on a floor mattress for more than 72 hours.

Medical Staffing: The jail agreed to increase its health care staff to a minimum of 27 positions to provide care for a monthly total average prisoner population of 1,250. In the event the jail population exceeds that number the parties agreed further medical staff would be required and would be negotiated by the parties at that time. The jail agreed there would be at least 1 health care staff of at least licensed practical nurse level on duty 24 hours a day, year round, to respond to medical emergencies and provide medical assessment during booking when needed.

The second stipulated order, to be enforced as an injunction, settled claims regarding security staffing, classification, interim jail facility, booking information and health care.

Interim Facility: While a new, larger jail is built, an interim jail was opened in September, 1996, in a parking lot next to the existing main jail to hold 500 prisoners. The settlement limits the interim jail to no more than 500 prisoners, all of whom must have beds. The interim facility will be a direct supervision facility and house only medium and minimum security prisoners. Prisoners in the interim jail will be given an opportunity for at least one hour of outdoor exercise three times a week.

The jail is required to provide adequate meals, commissary, laundry, health care, religious access, visitation and emergency medical care at any interim facility. Prisoners are required to have access to substantially similar library materials, educational and other programs as are available in the main jail. Prisoners with contagious diseases or serious medical or mental health problems will not be housed in the interim jail.

The interim jail must meet all applicable health, safety, plumbing, energy, electrical and fire codes. The settlement requires that indoor temperature at the jail not be lower than 65 degrees F nor higher than 85 degrees F and that it be equipped with a high capacity ventilation system. The settlement also requires that the permanent jail be completed by November 1, 2000.

Classification: Pierce county is required to develop and implement an objective classification system to identify prisoners with documented violent, assaultive or ongoing aggressive behavior in the jail.

Booking Information: The jail is required to have its staff ask, and record, the answers to booking form questions of medical, mental health and suicide risk issues. All staff who fill out the booking form will receive training on classification.

Security Staff: The settlement sets forth detailed requirements on the number of staff required to maintain observation of the jail housing areas. It also sets forth staffing levels for control areas, cluster stations and essential jail functions. The settlement allows the plaintiffs to again raise the issue of staffing if the current level proves insufficient.

The third stipulated order, and final judgment, which incorporated the first two judgments, set jail standards, religious and court access, medical care charges, grievance procedure, bedding, clothing, outside air quality and monitoring of the decree. All provisions of the final settlement will apply with regard to any new permanent jail facility opened or operated directly by the defendants or under contract. In addition to complying with the settlement terms, the new jail must meet safety and supervision standards determined by agreement between the parties. If agreement cannot be reached the parties will resolve their differences through arbitration.

Religious Access: The jail agreed to establish and follow a policy of accommodating prisoners, religious needs to the fullest extent possible. Congregate religious services will be allowed, but not limited to, for Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Native American faiths on their holy days. The jail chaplain will establish and maintain a liaison with various interfaith councils to obtain religious leaders willing to come to the jail to assist in, or conduct, religious services and counseling. Essential religious paraphernalia will also be allowed.

Legal Access: The defendants agreed to provide jail prisoners with access to adequate legal and other materials to allow them to represent themselves in civil matters and criminal appeals and to assist in their legal defense or appeal.

"The defendants shall provide inmates with access to all materials contained on Pierce County's computer legal research database which is also shared by the Pierce County prosecutor's office and the Department of Assigned Counsel. The defendants shall insure that an individual with training in the law and with computer legal research skills is regularly available at reasonable times to assist inmates in conducting computer legal research and constructing queries for computer legal research. In the event that the defendants utilize law students to provide this assistance, the defendants will insure that coverage is available during student examination periods and vacations. The defendants shall insure that law students or others assisting inmates with legal research or access to legal materials are adequately supervised."

Prisoners engaged in pro se litigation will be provided sufficient access to local criminal and traffic codes, prisoners' self help litigation manuals as well as adequate paper, pens, postage, typewriters and photocopying services. Indigent litigants will be provided with these materials at no cost.

Health Care: The jail is required to identify a local hospital that will provide emergency medical care and hospitalization. The jail agreed to ensure that its medical care system provides constitutionally adequate medical care. This includes establishing a Quality Assurance and Improvement Committee. Jail guards will receive training in recognizing medical emergencies and ensuring prisoners receive timely medical care for both injury and illness related conditions. The jail must ensure it has infirmary beds to house prisoners recovering from surgery; who are paraplegic or quadriplegic or have other medical conditions requiring such beds. The parties agreed to the appointment of the Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department to serve as a court monitor to ensure implementation and compliance with health standards agreed to in the settlement.

Medical Fees: One of the issues challenged in the suit was the jail practice of charging prisoners for seeking medical care. Under the settlement the jail agreed not to charge prisoners for initial medical visits and it requires a written charge schedule and that all charges be reasonable. The jail can charge prisoners for prisoner initiated requests for further consultations if, in the medical staff's professional judgment, the problem was resolved after the initial visit.

Grievances: The settlement requires that the jail establish and follow written procedures for investigating all reports of serious staff misconduct. This includes prompt, thorough and professional investigations by an experienced investigators The jail agreed to establish and follow a written policy that a preponderance of evidence standard would apply to internal discipline. A grievance mechanism to investigate allegations of staff misconduct must also be established.

Bedding and Clothing: All bedding must be thoroughly cleaned before being issued to prisoners. All jail prisoners must be provided with a minimum set of clean clothes and bedding.

Outdoor Exercise: The jail agreed to provide all prisoners, except those in segregation, with an opportunity for at least three hours of outdoor exercise a week.

The settlement specifies that it is enforceable as an injunction and that it is narrowly drawn and extends no further than necessary to protect the federal rights of Pierce County jail prisoners. The plaintiff class did not seek damages and nothing in the settlement prevents them from doing so in separate actions. Readers should note that this is an unpublished settlement. See: Herrera et al. v. Pierce County, et al., Case No. C95-5025FDB (WD WA 1996).

The suit was filed and litigated by Stephen Parsons and PLN columnist John Midgley of Columbia Legal Services and Fred Diamondstone and Salvador Mungia on behalf of the ACLU of Washington. This settlement is an excellent model of what plaintiffs should seek in jail conditions litigation.

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Related legal case

Herrera v. Pierce County