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Washington DOC Pays $24,697 in PLN Records Suit

The cover story in this issue of PLN , "Washington's Island of Deviant Doctors," is the result of a lengthy investigation into the provision of medical care to prisoners and civil commitment "residents" at the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) in Steilacoom, Washington. PLN reviewed thousands of pages of documents from lawsuits, the Department of Health, the Medical Quality Assurance Commission, the Department of Labor and Industry (L&I), and the Department of Corrections (DOC). Not surprisingly, the DOC did its best to stymie the investigation.

In April 2000, PLN editor Paul Wright submitted a Public Disclosure Act (PDA) request to MICC officials requesting documents pertaining to Bruce Barrett, the MICC physician's assistant who died of a Demerol overdose. Also requested were documents pertaining to water and safety issues at MICC. The request was ignored for eight months. Eventually Barrett's heavily redacted death certificate was released, with MICC officials refusing to release any other documents claiming that it would violate Barrett's "right to privacy."

PLN filed suit in Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Washington, claiming that the DOC's refusal to disclose its investigative report and other complaints about Barrett violated the PDA, RCW 42.17 et seq . After full briefing and a court hearing, on December 15, 2000, judge Bruce Cohoe ruled in PLN 's favor on all issues and ordered the DOC to immediately disclose all of the requested documents. The court also assessed statutory penalties of $5 a day, totaling $1,335 in PLN 's favor. The court also awarded PLN its attorneys' fees and costs but left it to the parties to attempt to resolve the exact amount.

PLN 's counsel submitted a fee bill of approximately $14,000 to Assistant Attorney General Kasey Kniep, who represented the DOC in the action and had lost the case on the merits. Kniep said the amount requested was "too much" and countered with an offer of $7,000. PLN then petitioned the superior court for its attorneys' fees, including the fees incurred litigating the fee issue.

Pierce County Superior Court judge Katherine Stolz granted PLN 's attorney fee petition in full and awarded PLN $23,397.30 in fees and costs. This is one of the highest fee and damage awards against the Washington DOC in a PDA action in its history. The DOC elected not to appeal the ruling on the merits, or on the fee award. MICC officials duly released the report on Barrett's death and also allowed a PLN representative to review the prison's safety records (which did not disclose any significant water, asbestos or other problems at the island prison).

PLN was capably represented by Shelley Hall (disclosure petition) and Alison Howard (fee petition) of the Seattle law firm of Davis, Wright and Tremaine, who represented PLN pro bono in the case. PLN is grateful for their skilled representation, which made this article possible.

This is the first time the DOC's report on Barrett's death has been made public. Absent PLN 's investigation and then litigation, this information would most likely have remained shuttered from public view. Likewise, other documents pertaining to MICC's cadre of inept medical care providers has not previously been reviewed by the media. Rather than improve medical care for its prisoners, Washington prisoncrats seem more intent on covering up for their incompetent, sexually deviant, and drug addicted employees instead of forthrightly addressing its medical inadequacies. In this case the cover up effort cost $24,697 and failed. See: Prison Legal News v. Washington DOC , Pierce County Superior Court, Case No. 002133443.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. Washington DOC