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Lawsuit Claims Seattle’s King County Jail Shows Little Improvement in Quarter Century Since “Hammer Agreement”

On February 24, 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-Wash.) filed suit accusing King County of violating a longstanding settlement agreement governing conditions at the county jail (KCJ) in Seattle. In 1998, ACLU-Wash. secured the settlement—known as the “Hammer Agreement”—to protect those incarcerated in KCJ from assault by fellow prisoners and detainees. It requires the county to properly identify and classify violent, assaultive and aggressive prisoners, using that classification to ensure appropriate housing decisions—which the county is failing to do, Plaintiffs claim. See: Am.Civ.Lib.U. of Wash. v. King Cty, Wash. Super. (Pierce Cty.), Case No. 23-2-05019-9.

That same month, detainee Thomas J. Sturges was finally sent for competency restoration to face trial on charges stemming from two robberies with a fake gun. A court had previously ruled him incompetent due to mental illness, but he sat in KJC for a year decompensating because his family in California could not afford a $15,000 out-of-state bond, and the state faced delays getting Sturges a bed in a psychiatric hospital.

Just seven months later, in August 2023, his competency was restored and Sturges agreed to take medications as part of a plea agreement—but he was hospitalized for malnourishment, having lost 80 pounds since arrest. The state Department of Public Health, with more than 60 staff vacancies, had not managed to evaluate Sturges and give him his meds. A court appearance in late September 2023 was delayed, and it is still not clear if Sturges has recovered sufficiently to face his charges.

The public defender believes Sturges lost competency because of neglect after re-entering KCJ, where an August 2023 staffing analysis revealed that 60% of guards now enjoy federal medical protections from forced overtime. But staff shortages force the rest to work insane amounts of mandatory overtime—one guard clocked over 1,000 overtime hours in 2022—contributing to a 29% staff vacancy rate.

The county approved $12 million in recruitment and retention incentives for guards at the end of 2022. However, advocacy group Shut Down KCJ claims that “we cannot hire ourselves out of this crisis” because “the jail IS the crisis.”

As if to prove that point, former guard Mosses Ramos, along with five others, was indicted on charges of conspiracy, bribery, and possession with intent to distribute on November 1, 2023, for allegedly smuggling meth and fentanyl into the jail. The 17-year KCJ veteran allegedly accepted bribes from detainees to bring them more than 50 grams of meth between March and May 2023.

Meanwhile KCJ’s suicide rate is eight times the national average. One of those who killed himself was Keith Denegal, 47, who hanged himself with a bedsheet on February 20, 2022, just one week after being booked. Disciplinary records say guard Emmanuel Palaita skipped a safety check immediately preceding Denegal’s suicide. An investigation concluded that Palaita violated department policy, falsified documents, caused loss or injury to the county or public, as well as breaching jail security; yet the guard managed to evade discipline. He walked off the job without notice, went on leave for several weeks, and resigned a month later.

On August 18, 2022, Palaita was added to King County’s Brady List of law enforcement officers whose testimony in court is suspect because of a record of dishonesty. Palaita currently has an application with the Seattle Fire Department valid until June 2024.  


Sources: KING, Muckrock, Publicola, The Seattle Times, The Stranger

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Related legal case

Am.Civ.Lib.U. of Wash. v. King Cty