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Washington Jail Prisoners Suffer from Overcrowding, Abusive Guards, Inadequate Health Care and Indifferent Politicians

Since the mid-1990s, Washington State jail populations have increased exponentially. Obsolete facilities built decades ago to hold a handful of prisoners are now packed like sardine tins, with as many prisoners sleeping on the floor as in bunks. Overcrowding has resulted in numerous problems in terms of security and meeting prisoners? medical needs.

But such problems pale in comparison to those caused by guards who beat and sexually abuse prisoners; healthcare personnel who are either too incompetent, or too unconcerned, to adequately diagnose and treat prisoners? medical and mental health issues; and politicians who are content to simply sweep these types of problems under the rug.

Overcrowding, Understaffing

Historically, cities in King County that don?t have their own jails have sent criminal defendants to the King County Jail in Seattle or the Regional Justice Center in Kent. But a growing jail population in King County, plus an anticipated boom in coming years, has led to the conclusion that the jail will be forced to stop housing misdemeanor defendants by 2012 because there will only be room for those charged with felonies.

Consequently, King County and a number of western Washington cities have rented beds in other county jails for several years. Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane Counties are expected to do the same.

Renting jail beds hasn?t always proven effective. In 2002, 35 cities in King County entered into a contract to rent 440 beds in a new jail set to open in 2004 in Yakima County. King County officials agreed to pay about $8 million annually for the beds, but by 2006 the $21 million, 47,000 square-foot Yakima facility still wasn?t ready.

At that time, Yakima County?s old jail was holding about 220 western Washington prisoners. The county?s failure to open the new facility not only exacerbated overcrowding problems in the cities trying to rent bed space, but also caused overcrowding in Yakima?s existing jail. Thus, Yakima County?s old facility, built to hold 574 prisoners, often held more than 900. These cramped conditions led to fights (about 25 per month), many of which were between Yakima County prisoners and those from the western side of the state, who were viewed as unwelcome trespassers.

At least one King County prisoner, Alexander Hooks, sued over his transfer to Yakima County?s jail, stating the move restricted access to his lawyer and led him to fear for his life due to the level of violence. His fears may not have been exaggerated; in August 2007, Yakima County jail prisoner Damian Long, 30, was beaten to death by four other prisoners.

In 2005, the cities that had been contracted to house prisoners at the Yakima facility hired William C. Collins, a consultant, to study conditions at the jail. His report cited racial tensions, gang violence, overcrowding and substandard medical care. The city of Renton removed its prisoners from Yakima County due to the poor conditions. Renton Police Chief Kevin Milosevich said he was unwilling to subject Renton prisoners to that degree of violence; the city now houses overflow prisoners in the Okanogan County Jail.

Expressing her frustration, Renton Mayor Kathy Keolker stated that ?Yakima?s continued refusal to open and operate permanently the new facility is a testament to its disregard for inmates? rights and needs.? On Sept. 27, 2006, Seattle and 11 other municipalities filed a claim against Yakima County for not opening the new jail in a timely manner.

A follow-up report by consultant William Collins in January 2007 found improvements at Yakima?s old facility, and 2 of the 4 units in the new jail were finally opened on February 27, 2007. Consequently, most of the King County cities that had contracted to house prisoners at Yakima?s new jail facility settled their differences with the county last year.

Pierce County isn?t much better off. The county spent over $50 million in special tax money on a new jail in an attempt to cope with overcrowding in the old one. The new facility, built as a result of a 1995 settlement in a federal lawsuit, was completed in 2003. But just nine months later, 49 felons and 44 misdemeanants had been released because there weren?t enough guards to fully staff the jail.

The problem was that the jail?s 2003 operating cost was $2.9 million over budget. It would have taken $1.4 million per year to hire the additional 18 guards necessary to run the facility at its full capacity, and the county claimed it didn?t have that kind of money. Thus, it was forced to release prisoners.

Part of the budget crunch was attributed to overtime paid to the jail?s guards. On November 23, 2007, the Tacoma News Tribune reported that 22 guards were ?on track to work more than 850 hours of overtime.? One of those guards, Thomas Dickerson, pocketed $130,000 as a result of overtime pay. The News Tribune article noted that the estimated $3.8 million the county will spend on overtime in 2007 could have filled all the vacant staff positions at the jail.

On March 20, 2008, Tacoma residents met with county officials to discuss overcrowding at the jail and its impact on the community. In 2007, almost 4,000 arrestees were released early from the Pierce County Jail due to overcrowding ? more than triple the number of early releases the previous year. Rob Masko, Chief of the county?s Corrections Department, said the facility was ?full at the seams.?

In 2006, Thurston County began construction of a $35 million, 300-bed satellite facility to relieve overcrowding at its jail. Among the reasons cited for building the new lockup were an increase in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults from 87 in 1995 to 146 in 2005, and a rise in prisoner-on-guard assaults from 10 in 1995 to 15 in 2005, which county officials attributed to crowded conditions.

The Kittitas County Jail is another good example of problems related to overcrowding. Built in 1983, it was designed to hold 45 prisoners. But in July 2006 the jail population was 114, more than twice its intended capacity. The county had not only added a bed to each cell and converted a recreation area to a dorm, but was also renting beds in the Sunnyside jail. Undersheriff Clayton Meyers blamed the overcrowding for a rise in violence at the facility. He said he was doing all he could ?to keep the jail population down,? but noted bleakly that ?there is no relief in sight.?

At the Spokane County Jail, overcrowding was partly to blame for a freeworld shooting. On January 4, 2006, Jaycee Carrywater was booked into the facility on suspicion of theft and possession of drugs. The jail was required to release him at 5:00 p.m. on January 9 if he wasn?t served with charging papers by that date. Jail guards received the documents at about 3:00 p.m. but misfiled them, so Carrywater was released as scheduled. Three days later he shot someone in a drive-by shooting. Jail Commander Jerry Brady acknowledged that mistakes had been made but also attributed the botched release, at least in part, to ?the sheer volume of suspected criminals who come and go from the jail.?

Overcrowding also led to Spokane County jail prisoner Christopher L. Rentz, 21, being placed in a cell with two maximum-security prisoners in October 2004. He was beaten with a broom handle and strangled with a bed sheet, and his throat slit with a razor. Jail staff failed to intervene. In September 2007, the county settled a wrongful death suit filed by Rentz?s family for $180,000. See: Rentz v. Spokane County, USDC ED WA, Case No. 2:05-cv-00083-LRS.

Overcrowding has been at the root of a litany of other debacles in Washington jails, from escapes and suicides to prisoners creating diversions so they could sneak into each other?s cells to have sex. There are simply too many prisoners, crammed into too little space, with too few guards to maintain order.

The problem is obviously money, and there is no easy solution. Residents in the individual counties are tired of jail-related taxes, such as a ?jail sales tax? that has been imposed by Spokane County since 1995 and by Pierce County since 1996. They will not approve multi-million dollar proposals to build new jails. Legislators could approve funds to construct regional jails, but they?re too busy trying to create more bed space for the state?s overcrowded prison system to be bothered with the counties? problems. This is the entirely predictable result of decades of harsh ?tough on crime? legislation that punishes tax payers while not improving public safety. Modest reforms like changes in bail practices, not criminalizing homelessness and mental illness, would go a long way to relieve jail crowding.

With nowhere else to get money for more jail beds and guards, it appears that Undersheriff Meyers may well be right: already bloated jail populations will continue to swell and ?there is no relief in sight.?

Abusive Jail Guards

Guards at the Spokane County Jail appear to have found an innovative new way to make prisoners behave ? if they don?t do as they?re told, just beat them to death. At least that?s what they did to Benites S. Sichiro in January 2006.

Sichiro was booked into the jail on misdemeanor warrants; he was also the subject of a rape investigation. He was delusional from severe alcohol withdrawal and became verbally abusive. When he didn?t shut up as directed, jail guards Ted Tolfsrud, Steve Long, Todd Belitz, Wayne Mauer, David Flatten, John Elam, Tim Christopherson and Michael Vanatta entered his cell and pummeled him with knees and fists on three separate occasions, shocked him with a Taser seven times and placed him in a restraint chair. Sichiro died two days later, on January 29, 2006, due to liver damage.

The following month, Tolfsrud learned that while they were beating Sichiro, Elam had delivered a ?donkey kick? to Sichiro?s abdomen, which had been omitted from the 300-page report on the prisoner?s death. He felt obligated to report the cover-up and contacted the Washington State Patrol. The State Patrol and the FBI investigated the incident but nobody was indicted, even though the county medical examiner determined that Sichiro had died ?from a lacerated liver caused by blunt force trauma to the torso that likely occurred during the beatings....? His death was ruled a homicide.

Several unidentified prisoners said they heard Sichiro scream ?I?m gonna die. Oh my God, I don?t want to die.? Another reported hearing guards ?talking about officers being suspended? and joking, saying things like ?be nice to this one? and ?don?t leave any bruises.? Even so, Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that ?[t]here?s no evidence to show they [the guards who beat Sichiro] did anything wrong.?

Shockingly, in June 2006, the Spokane City Police Department hired Elam, the guard who had kicked Sichiro, as a city police officer. Tom Lee, a police department spokesman, said that a ?specific in-depth investigation was done after Elam told us about the jail incident, and investigators found no reason not to hire him.? Elam didn?t last long as a police rookie, though; he was fired on February 8, 2007 after he lied during an investigation into a car accident.

On July 12, 2007, Sichiro?s estate filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of his ex-wife and two children. The lawsuit claims the county and the sheriff?s office failed to train and supervise the guards involved in Sichiro?s beating death, and did not provide adequate medical care. See: Meippen v. Spokane County, USDC ED WA, Case No. 2:07-cv-00220-FVS.

Jail prisoner Robert Galliher fared better than Sichiro. Spokane County guards only beat him senseless in 2003 after he publicly accused Spokane Mayor Jim West, and deceased Deputy Sheriff David Hahn, of molesting him in the 1970s and 1980s when he was a young boy. The guards told him that he ?wasn?t going to disgrace their police department,? then assaulted him. Galliher said the attack left his ?right eye swollen shut? and his ?left eye ... blackened.? He also said there was ?blood in [his] urine for a couple of weeks.? After the beating, Galliher was placed in solitary confinement without clothes, medical care or a toothbrush.

The allegations that precipitated this abuse were that West, who was a Deputy Sheriff at the time, had Galliher fondle him and perform oral sex on him three times at Hahn?s apartment, and that Hahn did the same to Galliher on 30 or 40 occasions. Galliher said Hahn often gave him small amounts of marijuana as a reward after the molestations; he also stated both West and Hahn had warned him that if he told anyone what they were doing to him, he and his family would go to jail.

Galliher claimed that Hahn, who committed suicide in 1981, molested him just before he killed himself. He said they ?were sitting on the bed and he pulled his gun out. He put the gun to my head ... moved the gun to his head and blew his brains out.? Galliher said he left and ran home, and that he never told anyone about the incident.

After the Spokesman-Review reported Galliher?s jailhouse beating, he said he was called to a deserted visiting room late one night, where West was waiting. According to Galliher, West told him that he?d ?better keep quiet about anything that?s going on.? The next day Galliher?s probation officer visited him at the jail and told him that if he said anything else about West or the police, felony harassment charges would be filed against him.

At the behest of Galliher?s mother, the FBI investigated the incident. The investigation concluded in November 2005 and the FBI recommended that no charges be filed against the officers who beat Galliher. Spokane Mayor Jim West was recalled from office in 2005; West and Hahn had been friends and Scoutmasters in a Boy Scout troop.

In November 2006, Spokane County agreed to pay $225,000 to settle a civil suit that Galliher had filed over the decades-old sexual molestations. He had alleged that Hahn was allowed to keep his job as a deputy even after sheriff?s officials were informed that he was molesting young boys.

One Spokane County jail guard, at least, has been held accountable for assaulting a prisoner. The guard?s name is Steven Skinner, and he was arrested in February 2006 after spraying prisoner Danny Farmer with pepper spray while he was in his cell. Skinner was angry with Farmer for yelling and trying to flood the cell by plugging the toilet and flushing it. Skinner was fired after his arrest, and pled guilty to the assault charge in January 2007.

Additionally, King County has paid a hefty sum to avoid having several of its guards held civilly liable for beating a jail prisoner in March 1998. In that case, Robert Garrison was jailed on a solicitation to commit murder charge. When he asked for a cell change because the one he was in had urine on the wall, guards shackled him face down to a board. He later freed his feet and sat up, trying to relieve pain in his shoulder. When the guards saw him sitting up, they slammed him to the floor and dropped a knee on his neck, causing a permanent injury. He filed a civil rights action in federal district court, which the county settled in May 2006 for $50,000. See: Garrison v. King County Adult Detention, USDC WD WA, Case No. 2:02-cv-00880-TSZ.

Series of Sexual Misconduct

Washington jailors? penchant for brutality is not their only character flaw; some are also sex offenders who prey on the prisoners in their charge.

Cedric Darnell McGrew is one such guard. He pled guilty to 2nd degree sexual misconduct and third degree assault in November 2006 for making a 27-year-old female prisoner perform oral sex on him at the King County Jail earlier that year. McGrew had also sexually abused another woman who was in a work release program at the jail. He was sentenced on January 5, 2007 to serve only six months for those crimes.

McGrew?s 27-year-old victim said that earlier in the day that McGrew sexually assaulted her, a guard named Louis G. Laurencio ?shoved her against the wall [of a recreation room at the jail] and shoved his hand down [her] pants.? Then, after McGrew was finished with her, Laurencio made her pose while he took photos of her exposed breasts. Laurencio was convicted of sexual misconduct and received a jail sentence of four months.

King County guard Harland Richmond was convicted of 2nd-degree sexual misconduct in May 2007 for having sex with several female prisoners in a storage closet at the jail. In those cases the encounters were consensual, but in Washington, as in other states, it?s illegal for guards to have sex with a prisoner even if the prisoner consents. Richmond?s lawyer, Tony Savage, smugly blamed the victims, saying they were ?criminals ... dope addicts and liars.?

In July 2007 Richmond received a one-year jail sentence with all but four months suspended. The judge stated of Richmond?s behavior, ?This isn?t a date. This isn?t a pickup in a bar. This is you as a corrections officer and a woman in your control who is virtually powerless.?

Lydia Korolak, 34, was convicted of sexual misconduct for having sex with two teenage boys in the King County Juvenile Detention Center, where she was employed as a guard in 2001 and 2002. She snuck into the boys? cells late at night, when everyone else was asleep, and had sex with them. Korolak was sentenced to 17 months? jail time in July 2007.

On October 4, 2007, Flor-Mari Crisostomo, 39, a contract counselor at the same juvenile lockup, was charged with custodial sexual misconduct. She reportedly gave a 17-year-old prisoner additional phone time and candy, and released him from suicide watch, in exchange for sex.

Bridget Sarabi, formerly with the Portland, Oregon-based Western Prison Project (now the Partnership for Safety and Justice), said of such scandals that King County jails have ?got a serious problem [which] from the human rights side of it ... jeopardizes the well being and safety of those who are in [the jail?s] care and who [it has] a charge to protect.?

King County Executive Ron Sims proposed a $900,000 allocation for special training for the county?s jail guards in 2006, but it?s unclear whether that actually happened. Regardless, it?s hard to justify spending such a large sum to train guards not to assault prisoners or have sex with them.

On January 25, 2006, a 60-year-old guard named Bernard Baumgardner III raped a female prisoner, Billie Ray Dupree, in a remote building at the Geiger Correction Center in Spokane. Baumgardner pled guilty to sexual misconduct in June 2006, and Dupree filed a lawsuit against the county in January 2008. The case is still pending. See: Dupree v. Spokane County, USDC ED WA, Case No. CV-08-027-EFS.

In May 2007, Anthony D. Smith, 33, a former Skagit County Sheriff?s Deputy, pled guilty to three counts of misdemeanor assault with sexual motivation. According to Chief Criminal Deputy Will Reichardt, Smith had been involved in sexual misconduct since 2003, including the inappropriate touching of, and flirting with, female prisoners and the uninvited hugging of a male prisoner?s fiancé. Reichardt said that Smith ?probably was doing inappropriate things over an extended period of time, and it just came to light this spring.? A 22-year-old woman named Florena Aurelia Romero claimed in June 2007 that she was raped by an unnamed guard at the Snohomish County Jail, where she was awaiting trial. Police Sgt. Robert Goetz stated, ?There isn?t any issue that I am aware of as to consent ...,? so the case was being investigated only as an inappropriate sexual contact case. The guard was placed on administrative leave.

In December 2007, Snohomish County approved a labor contract that included a 15 percent pay raise for the county?s jail guards. The guards rejected the county?s request for a special code of conduct as part of the contract.

Sadly, the above examples represent only the tip of the prisoner abuse iceberg in Washington jails. Society rarely hears about such sexual and physical assaults, partly because most incidents are never reported. Prisoners fear retaliation by guards or don?t think they?ll be believed. Also, guards seldom inform on each other for fear of being ostracized, and jail supervisors tend to ignore these kinds of complaints when made by prisoners.

For those reasons, evidence of the abuse typically remains safely hidden behind the jailhouse walls, away from outsiders who might complain or file a report if they learned about it. Thus, guards are free to continue their abusive behavior. Whether people care about prisoners? rights or not, simple pragmatism dictates that something be done about guards who rape, sexually assault or physically abuse prisoners in their custody.

Inadequate Health Care

A barrage of complaints about the quality of health care in Washington jails over the past several years has resulted in county, state and federal investigations. Although a number of problems have been identified, jail supervisors and local politicians seem more willing to deny their existence than to fix them.

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a bacterial infection, ran rampant in the King County Jail in 2004 and 2005. Left untreated, MRSA can cause swelling, boils, blisters, fever, pneumonia, bloodstream infections, loss of limbs and a painful death. Patrick Harrington, 40, and his 41-year-old girlfriend, Laura Serrano, were in the jail in 2004 serving short sentences for theft. They sought treatment for MRSA-related symptoms but were ignored. Harrington was eventually taken to a hospital where he died soon thereafter; Serrano died a few weeks later, shortly after completing her sentence. Both of their deaths were due to complications caused by MRSA.

According to unidentified nurses at the jail, medical staffing and record keeping at the facility were inadequate; they said with more health care staff and better record keeping, deaths like Harrington?s and Serrano?s could have been prevented. In fact, the Washington State Nurses Association stated that routine understaffing at the jail had caused ?serious concern? relative to prisoners? medical treatment.

Even so, James Apa of the King County Public Health Department found the MRSA problem at the jail to be under control. He said the deaths probably weren?t caused by the facility?s lack of treatment. Dr. Ben Sanders, the jail?s Medical Director, agreed, saying the facility?s staff was vigilant in dealing with those types of afflictions.

The jail has since taken precautions to curb MRSA infections, including better hygiene, new sanitary mattresses and providing prisoners with clean underwear. However, the MRSA problem at the jail remains, well, problematic. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, over a five-month period from September 2007 to February 2008, 65 King County Jail prisoners were diagnosed with MRSA. ?The fact that it develops in the jail doesn?t always mean it was caused by the jail,? countered Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, with the Public Health Department.

In the case of prisoner Douglas Gallagher, physician apathy at the King County Jail caused a delay of over 18 months in the treatment of his tennis ball-sized hernia. Gallagher was in the jail awaiting trial on burglary charges in April 2004. The hernia caused him constant and extreme pain, which increased considerably if he tried to walk without holding the hernia in. When he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, such as when he walked to and from court, he couldn?t hold in the hernia. Medical Director Ben Sanders examined him but did nothing to treat his condition.

After writing 24 complaints over more than a one-year period, Gallagher filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal district court. The Washington Civil Liberties Union took over the case, and in January 2006, Magistrate Monica J. Benton found that jail personnel had been deliberately indifferent to Gallagher?s serious medical needs in violation of the Eight Amendment. Only then did medical staff arrange for the repair of his hernia at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. See: Gallagher v. Pine, USDC WD WA, Case No. 2:05-cv-00648-MJP-MJB.

A growing number of complaints prompted King County?s Ombudsman to investigate the jail?s pharmacy in 2006. The investigation revealed a number of problems ? including unauthorized people allowed in the medication room, narcotics dispensed without documentation as to who took them, procedures such as high blood pressure checks, diabetic blood sugar checks, tuberculosis test readings, alcohol withdrawal vital sign checks, pregnant prisoner blood pressure readings not being done, unreasonable delays in refilling prescriptions, wrong medications being dispensed, and hostility toward staff who spoke out on behalf of prisoners? welfare, to name a few.

An unidentified nurse reported that another nurse had skipped dispensing medication to about 70 prisoners because she didn?t feel like it. Even so, Medical Director Sanders denied that any problem existed, and expressed his pride in the quality of healthcare for prisoners at the jail. Of course he wasn?t on the receiving end of such care.

In December 2003, jail prisoner Damon Henderson was mistakenly given a fatal dose of methadone when he should have received medication for pain caused by sickle-cell anemia. And in January 2004, prisoner Patrick Harrington died after jail staff failed to timely treat his rampant MRSA infection. Of the 614 medical and pharmacy errors reported at the King County Jail in 2005, more than 90 percent were medication-related mistakes.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated conditions at the King County Jail last year. After two surprise visits the DOJ issued a scathing 27-page report in November 2007 that cited gratuitous violence against prisoners and substandard medical treatment. The medical inadequacies identified were similar to those in the King County Ombudsman?s report ? e.g., that jail medical staff failed to adequately assess and treat prisoners? acute and chronic conditions, provided prisoners with inadequate emergency care, insufficiently managed their medication, inadequately treated and prevented the spread of MRSA, and inadequately screened incoming prisoners. The report noted that five prisoners had died at the jail in 2007 ? some from MRSA, some from suicide and one from an untreated perforated ulcer.

Once again, King County officials retreated into denial. Reed Holtgeerts, director of the county?s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, said he did not believe ?that any of the issues identified in the report reach the level of civil rights violations.? King County Executive Ron Sims remarked that he ?remained confident that the county runs a constitutionally sound facility.? Some improvements were made at the jail, however, and Holtgeerts acknowledged that it ?sounds like we need to do a little bit better job.?

A 2004 investigation of the Yakima County Jail identified problems similar to the deficiencies cited in King County. There, the state Department of Health found that Yakima Physicians, Inc, which provides medical treatment at the facility, wasn?t adequately addressing prisoners? healthcare needs. The report suggested that the jail conducts intake screenings when prisoners are booked because intake assessments were taking up to two weeks. It recommended the development of a list of over-the-counter medications that could be obtained through the commissary to reduce the number of prisoners who sign up for sick call. It also suggested that a single medical director be hired to improve continuity of care, and that additional clerical staff be hired to ensure that doctors have all necessary information before seeing patients.

John Maxwell, an attorney who represents Yakima Physicians, Inc., said the report was exaggerated. He took denial to a whole new level, alleging that the investigation itself was the problem because it somehow rendered medical staff unable to provide medical care. He didn?t explain his reasoning.

In September, 2004, 29-year-old Zachary Barbee was booked into the Jefferson County Jail in Port Hadlock. His hand was swollen and painful due to a splinter in his right pinkie finger. He repeatedly requested medical care but Jail Superintendent Steve Richmond ignored the requests for more than 60 hours. When Barbee was finally taken to a hospital his finger had to be amputated.

Barbee filed suit in federal court and refused a settlement offer of $50,000. At trial several of Richmond?s subordinates testified about his lack of concern for prisoners, but even so, in May 2006 the jury found for the county. Now Barbee, minus a finger, will get no help with his medical expenses; further, the county tried to hold him responsible for about $25,000 in litigation costs.

Charles Leitch, one of the county?s lawyers, said he thought justice had been done and that the case should be a ?shot heard round the county? for those seeking compensation for injuries caused by county employees ? apparently suggesting that the county shouldn?t have to pay for the harm it causes.

On June 13, 2006, the District Court denied the county?s motion seeking to recover its legal costs from Barbee, holding it was unpersuaded by the county?s argument that the suit was frivolous or had been brought in bad faith. See: Barbee v. Jefferson County, USDC WD WA, Case No. 3:05-cv-05005-RBL.

Ironically, in January 2004, eight months before Barbee arrived at the jail, the ACLU had settled a class action suit against Jefferson County to improve conditions at the facility, including healthcare as well as sanitation and mail and grievance policies. The county paid $82,500 to the ACLU in attorney fees and costs. See: Orndorff v. Jefferson County, USDC WD WA, Case No. 3:02-cv-05096-RBL.

As part of a long-standing settlement in a 1995 federal class-action lawsuit involving the Pierce County Jail, a court-appointed physician, Dr. Steven Shelton, was supposed to issue reports twice a year on medical care at the facility. His last report was issued in 2005. The court removed Shelton in July 2007 and appointed a new medical monitor, Dr. Joseph Goldenson.

Dr. Goldenson issued his first report in January 2008, which found ?deficiencies in medical, dental and mental health staffing at the lockup,? according to an Associated Press article. Dr. Goldenson?s report cited over 20 areas in medical services at the jail that did not meet national standards. Dental care, he noted, was ?totally insufficient?; in one case a prisoner with a broken tooth had waited 44 days for treatment.

Attorney Fred Diamondstone, who represents Pierce County jail prisoners in the class action suit, lauded improvements at the facility but observed, ?The court order has been in effect for 12 years and it?s time to achieve compliance.?

Lack of Mental Health Treatment

Psychiatric care in Washington jails is also woefully inadequate. Despite a U.S. Department of Justice report which found that 64 percent of prisoners in county jails suffer from mental disorders, including depression, mania, psychotic ailments and other problems, jails in Washington State have largely failed to implement changes to address the rising number of mentally ill prisoners.

At the Spokane County Jail, an increase in mentally ill prisoners who require medication has caused pharmacy costs to soar from $125,000 in 1997 to $600,000 in 2005. Even though there are about 350 prisoners in the jail with mental health problems, only 46 beds are available in the mental health unit. Consequently, there is no real help for most mentally ill prisoners; there is also little follow-up treatment when they?re released.

Captain Jerry Brady assessed the situation and said, ?We treat them, medicate them, get them pretty stable, and then they?re kicked out the door.? He also recognized that the lack of bed space for mentally ill prisoners causes them to be housed in the main population at the jail, where they are at risk of being victimized by other prisoners.

?If we came up with a better alternative [for mentally ill prisoners], we?d spend half the money we?re spending now. It would have a significant impact on our prison populations,? stated Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen, who noted that 60 to 75 percent of the county?s jail prisoners suffer from mental illness.

The public?s attention was focused on mentally ill prisoners after an offender with a lengthy history of mental problems, James A. Williams, stabbed a young woman to death just ten days after he was released from the King County Jail late last year.

The Department of Justice?s 2007 report on the King County Jail found that mental health personnel only evaluated suicidal prisoners once a week when they should be evaluated at least daily. The report noted that this contributed to unnecessary, preventable suicides at the facility, including two in 2005.

In fact, a female prisoner attempted suicide by overdosing on medication while DOJ inspectors were at the jail. ?Disturbingly, despite the unfolding emergency, security staff did not call for medical help for a crucial eight minutes after the inmate had swallowed the medications,? observed Rena Comisac, acting director of the DOJ?s Civil Rights Division.

The most recent suicide at a Washington jail occurred on April 2, 2008, when an unidentified 26-year-old prisoner hung himself in a shower at the Pierce County facility.

As with the rape and beating of prisoners, the examples included above represent only a small percentage of incidents that have occurred in Washington jails over the last several years. And, as with the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, those responsible, in this case supervisors and politicians, are more content to deny that problems exist than to remedy them.

Until this head-in-the-sand attitude changes, prisoners will continue to suffer and die unnecessarily in Washington jails due to inadequate medical and mental health care, and public apathy.

Sources: Associated Press, Bellingham Herald, Everett Herald, Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Seattle Times, Spokane Spokesman-Review, Tacoma News Tribune, Yakima Herald-Republic, Department of Justice Report to King County Executive Ron Sims (November 13, 2007), The Stranger

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