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Prisoner Deaths Continue at King County Jail Despite DOJ Intervention

A rash of detainee deaths at the King County Correctional Facility (KCCF) in Seattle, Washington prompted the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to open an investigation into conditions at the jail on October 30, 2006. As the investigation continued so did the deaths, but that did not stop the DOJ from settling with the county in January 2009 – on the same day that KCCF reported the death of yet another detainee, Daphney Justice. More recently there have been 3 suicides at the jail in a five-week period.

As previously reported, on November 13, 2007, DOJ investigators issued a scathing report that found medical neglect and conditions at KCCF had contributed to detainee deaths. In addition to “preventable deaths,” the DOJ determined that prisoner abuse was “routine” and that overall jail operations were seriously deficient. [See: PLN, Feb. 2008, p.18].

Between 2000 and 2002 KCCF averaged one death annually, but between 2002 and 2006 the average number of deaths per year jumped to five. There were even more prisoner deaths in 2007. The DOJ found at least two deaths that resulted from inadequate medical care plus three suicides in the preceding three years were preventable. The report noted that “suicide prevention training at [the jail] falls far below generally accepted correctional practices.”

The DOJ’s 2007 report threatened litigation if remedial measures were not taken at KCCF. “The Department of Justice is optimistic that we can reach common ground with the county on implementing the necessary remedial measures,” said DOJ spokesperson Jodi Bobb. County executive Ron Sims agreed that the county “will be able to correct any identified concerns in a cooperative spirit” to avoid a lawsuit. Yet Sims denied that conditions at KCCF violated prisoners’ civil rights, arguing that the jail was “constitutionally sound.”

The DOJ and King County then entered into a Memorandum of Agreement that required the county to “make significant progress towards substantial compliance within 180 days of the effective date ... and ... implement all provisions … within 1 year of the effective date.”

The Agreement required the county to “develop, implement, and maintain comprehensive and contemporary use of force policies, procedures, and practices regarding permissible uses of force.” Those policies must “require staff to report all uses of force, including chemical agents ... and non-routine use of restraints.” An internal administrative panel must review all use-of-force incidents, and hairholds – a technique criticized in the DOJ report – must be reduced or eliminated.

Additional staff training in the recognition of suicidal tendencies among prisoners was required by the Agreement. Improved medical and sanitation practices, including new measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and regular supplies of clean underwear, uniforms, towels and bedsheets were also required.

The County Council approved the DOJ settlement, agreeing to set aside $2 million to implement the reforms in 2009 and $1.7 million annually in 2010 and 2011.

Meanwhile, prisoner Daphney Justice, 51, died the same day that the county settled with the DOJ, apparently due to medical-related reasons, and more recently there have been three suicides at KCCF.

On August 16, 2010, prisoner Christopher Goldner killed himself at the jail; Arnold Sharkey committed suicide on September 13, while Ryan Robertson, 33, hanged himself on September 20, 2010.

“In light of the three recent suicides among inmates in custody, [Dept. of Adult and Juvenile Detention] and Jail Health staff, in collaboration with the Department of Justice, have been reviewing every policy and procedure in place to determine if anything more can be done to better identify and protect those most likely to attempt suicide and help reduce the risk of suicide attempts,” the county wrote in a statement following Robertson’s death.

The continuing deaths at KCCF underscore the toothless, all-bark-no-bite nature of the remedial actions that typically result from DOJ investigations.

Sources: Seattle Post Intelligencer, DOJ Memorandum of Agreement, Seattle Times,

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