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Washington Jail Sued Over Conditions

On February 25, 2002, a county jail prisoner in Port Hadlock, Washington brought a class action lawsuit against the Jefferson County jail alleging near barbaric jail conditions that include inadequate health care, frigidly cold cells, broken plumbing, flooding, and inadequate clothing and bedding.

The prisoner who filed the suit, Shawn Orndorff, is being represented by attorneys Aaron H. Caplan and David C. Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the National Prison Project. The suit was filed in federal district court in Tacoma and has been certified as a class action.

The defendants in the suit, Jefferson County, Jefferson County Sheriff Peter G. Piccini, Superintendent of Corrections Carla Schuck, and jail sergeant Steve Richmond, are all accused of subjecting the prisoners at the jail to actual or imminent harm from the lack of "adequate medical, dental, and mental health care," as well as "physical violence" and "inadequate environmental health and sanitation" conditions. The suit further alleges that prisoners are being denied proper access to the courts, and are denied all access to books, magazines and newspapers.

Orndorff, who at the time the suit was filed was serving a sentence on one charge and awaiting trial on another, was initially booked into the jail in December 2001. He alleges that during the winter months his cell was so cold that he could see his breath. Only one blanket and a prison jumpsuit are provided for warmth and requests for additional blankets are denied, the suit says. To help ward off the cold, Orndorff has been forced to create "makeshift hot water bottles from old shampoo containers," according to the complaint.

The cells also have no running water, which means that after evening lockdown, prisoners have no way to wash their hands after using the toilet and have nothing to drink. The suit also alleges that clean laundry is provided only sporadically or not at all.

Other jail conditions complained of in the suit include inadequate medical treatment, inadequate jail staffing and inadequate plumbing. The jail has no health care workers on staff and a single nurse comes to the jail once a week to conduct sick call. During the rest of the week, the suit claims that jail custody staff make medical decisions for prisoners requiring or requesting treatment. The suit further charges that needed medications are routinely denied and prisoners with pre-existing conditions "are placed on lower dosages or different drugs at the discretion of untrained Jail staff." The result, according to the suit, is that prisoners have suffered "avoidable seizures, panic attacks, and other serious medical problems."

The jail also creates a potentially volatile and dangerous situation, according to the complaint, because only one guard is usually on duty to supervise 46-60 or more prisoners. "Because of inadequate supervision and heightened tension due to overcrowding (jail capacity is 46), fights break out among prisoners, and corrections staff do not intervene."

The jail's physical plant is also failing, leading to a dangerous and unhealthy environment. In addition to the extreme cold in the winter, the jail is unbearably hot during the summer, the suit says. The plumbing is so insufficient that toilets constantly overflow, floor drains clog and back up, and a "strong sewage odor" permeates the jail.

Jail rules also unconstitutionally impinge on prisoners' rights by providing no access to a law library, improper handling of legal mail, not permitting attorneys to meet with their prisoner/clients, and by locking the jail down during the day thereby denying prisoners the opportunity to telephone their lawyers. The jail also prohibits all access to books, magazines and newspapers, "in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution."

The suit seeks declaratory relief "holding that defendants' acts and omissions as alleged herein are unconstitutional and illegal, and injunctive enjoining defendants "from subjecting plaintiffs to the conditions set forth" in the complaint. The suit finally seeks costs and reasonable attorneys fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. See: Orndorff v. Jefferson County, et al., No. CV02-5096, U.S.D.C., Western District of Washington (Tacoma).

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Related legal case

Orndorff v. Jefferson County

Complaint is available in the brief bank.