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Washington: Pierce County Jail Suit Ends After 15 Years

In a report and recommendation to partly deny the defendants’ motion to terminate a consent decree related to conditions of confinement at Washington State’s Pierce County Jail, U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Kelley Arnold cited conditions that contributed to the deaths of several prisoners.

Following class certification on May 12, 1995, the parties to the suit worked to reach a resolution, as evidenced by consent decrees entered in 1996, 1998 and 2001. The case was eventually ordered into mediation after Pierce County moved to dismiss the consent decree in September 2009, except as it related to medical care.

A new settlement was reached two months later that limited the remaining issues in the lawsuit to ten areas concerning medical care. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss all remaining aspects of the consent decree in September 2010. Until that point in the litigation, the court had never made factual findings. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.38].

Magistrate Arnold’s October 15, 2010 report made findings on the issues of privacy during intake booking, chronic care, and alcohol withdrawal monitoring. Before making those findings, the court dismissed four other issues included in the earlier consent decree because they were “no longer at issue,” and dismissed three other issues upon determining they were not constitutionally required.

The court merged the issues of chronic disease care and privacy during intake. It then cited the case of a prisoner identified as “Mr. Merritt” in finding that prospective relief remained necessary to correct a current and ongoing violation of a federal right.

Merritt suffered from a number of ailments; his main problem was that he required proper medication to treat “a condition that causes his body to produce or be unable to rid itself of ammonia.” That Merritt saw medical staff and blood work was ordered following his November 17, 2009 admission to the jail indicated to the court that “there was some concern at booking.”

He was transported to a hospital eleven times, and one of those times jail staff failed to provide information to the hospital concerning his medical history. The court was shocked that the jail had not informed hospital staff that Merritt had been admitted to another hospital only five days earlier, not 20 days as the hospital staff mistakenly thought, which meant the problem was recurring faster than doctors believed.

Then, despite jail staff being advised that Merritt needed to receive his medication as prescribed, he missed eleven medication doses in 17 days and a week later missed five more doses over a five-day period.

As to the issue of failing to identify detainees with chronic care or mental health treatment needs at intake, the court pointed to a suicide that occurred at the jail only six days before the defendants filed their motion to terminate the consent decree. That prisoner had been screened and a history of depression was noted; within hours he committed suicide.

Between 1998 and 2010 there were 32 deaths at the jail, but many “were from natural causes that would happen in any setting.” Nonetheless, “[t]he fact remains that the number of suicides by hanging is sixteen and suicide by hanging is the leading cause of death at the Pierce County Jail,” the court wrote.

The court’s analysis of the jail’s alcohol withdrawal monitoring began by accepting the opinion of court-appointed monitor Dr. Goldenson, who said “alcohol withdrawal is a serious condition and can be life threatening if not properly monitored and treated.” The court also agreed with his opinion “that alcohol withdrawal requires monitoring every six to eight hours.”

Those conclusions were supported by Dr. Goldenson’s documentation of two prisoner deaths caused by alcohol withdrawal and “five other cases with withdrawal shortcomings.” He also noted that “an urban jail population is at greater risk for alcohol withdrawal than the general public and that alcohol withdrawal presents a greater risk of death than drug withdrawal.”

To resolve these issues, the court said it would require the taking of evidence so it could fashion the constitutionally-required minimum relief needed to comply with “contemporary standards of decency” related to medical care at the jail.

A new settlement in the case was reached in October 2010, and on January 14, 2011 the district court held that notice to the class members of the settlement and termination of the consent decree was not required. A report by Judith F. Cox, the court-appointed monitor who replaced Dr. Goldenson, on “the progress towards settlement compliance” was filed on February 22, 2011.

Cox found that “the healthcare staff at the Pierce County Detention and Corrections Center have met the terms of this agreement” in the areas of booking assessments, chronic care and procedures for prisoners suffering from alcohol withdrawal, thus resolving the last remaining issues in the case. See: Herrera v. Pierce County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:95-cv-05025-RJB-JKA.

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Related legal case

Herrera v. Pierce County