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Washington State Prisoner’s Suicide Leads to $350,000 Settlement

by Ed Lyon

Shannon Rose Jefferson, a Native American, was a frequent resident at the Whatcom County Jail (WCJ) in Washington State. During the last 16 years of her life, Jefferson was held at the WCJ over 20 times. Jail records covering those prior detentions indicated she had attempted suicide several times, suffered from chronic depression and had other mental health problems.

Jefferson was arrested on a failure to appear warrant and booked into the WCJ on February 16, 2014. Jail policy requires all arrestees to be medically evaluated, both physically and mentally, upon entering the facility.

Jefferson was processed with no medical screening whatsoever. Over a week passed before she finally received a medical evaluation.

Two other prisoners, Starr Strong and Lucy Pierson, targeted Jefferson for harassment and assaults shortly after she entered the WCJ. With her depression and other mental health problems, Jefferson coped as best she could until Strong sexually assaulted her on March 8, 2014. Afterward, Strong and Pierson laughed and taunted Jefferson the rest of the day until she physically assaulted Pierson.

Jefferson was placed in solitary while jailers investigated what had happened. Other detainees told the guards the truth about Strong and Pierson’s predatory behavior toward Jefferson. It was not until 11:20 a.m. on March 10, 2014 that jailers spoke with Jefferson.

During the interview, jailers told Jefferson “everyone had told on her,” which likely drove her even deeper into a depressive state before she was put back into her solitary confinement cell.

In the meantime, Pierson had been moved to a cell closer to the solitary cell where Jefferson was being held. That facilitated Pierson’s continued taunts and harassment, especially during Jefferson’s one hour of daily recreation outside her cell. Contributing to her condition was the fact that she continued to be denied mental health consultation and treatment.

Sometime after Jefferson was interviewed on March 10, 2014, in an already depressive state that was exacerbated by the lies the jailers told her, she hanged herself. Jail policy required only four head counts per day, even for prisoners in solitary and on mental health watch, so it was unknown how long she was left hanging in her cell before her body was discovered. She was taken to a hospital where she died after seven hours.

Seattle attorneys Gabriel S. Galanda and Ryan D. Dreveskracht filed a wrongful death and civil rights suit on behalf of Jefferson’s mother and six children. On June 4, 2019, a settlement was reached in the amount of $350,000.

Each child will receive $26,000 for a total of $156,000, with the remaining $194,000 going toward attorney fees and court costs. See: Jefferson v. Whatcom County, Skagit County Superior Court (WA), Case No. 16 2 012577. 


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Related legal case

Jefferson v. Whatcom County