Thursday, August 18, 2022
Aug. 18, 2022

Linkedin Pinterest

The King County Jail knew these bunks were a suicide risk. And still, more people died


King County Jail officials knew about the suicide risk posed by the design of the bunk beds in downtown Seattle jail cells for more than a year before 28-year-old Li’ahnna Mathis used one of the beds to end her life last December.

Since then, two more people have died in the same way.

A new report posted online last week confirms how Mathis died and describes the bunk design as a “structural issue,” following reporting from The Seattle Times showing that the King County Jail system was not complying with a new state law to make information on unexpected jail deaths public within 120 days. The jail, which has experienced a spike in deaths this year, has since created a website where it is uploading reports on unexpected deaths in custody.

Mathis denied being suicidal when she was booked and evaluated by a jail psychiatrist, according to the report. The document noted, however, that before being booked into the jail, Mathis had recently been admitted to the hospital after reporting she was sexually assaulted.

Mathis was then placed in a single cell with a type of bunk bed that jail officials had identified as a potential suicide risk the year prior. Suicide is a leading cause of death in Northwest jails, and research has showed that people in jail custody are at higher risk for suicide at 24 to 48 hours after booking.

“She never should have been placed in a cell with a structural issue that would give her the opportunity for self-harm,” said Mathis’ friend Danielle Summer.

Mathis, a singer and drag performer who went to high school in Port Orchard, had recently moved back to the Seattle area from Wisconsin during the pandemic before she was incarcerated. She had dealt with transphobic violence in the Midwest as a Black, transgender woman, friends said, and used drugs to cope with what she experienced.

Back in the Seattle area, Mathis stayed with various friends, but addiction made it difficult to find a permanent or stable home. By December, she had landed in the downtown Seattle jail on suspicion of violating a protection order.

Since Mathis’ death, one of the friends she lived with, Jennifer Titterness, has kept a small table draped in Mathis’ patterned scarves near her kitchen table. A candle and a framed photo of Mathis sit on top.

Sometimes Titterness wishes that she had kept Mathis at home with her through the depths of her addiction. But she’s also deeply angry with the jail.

“There’s no words,” Titterness said. “There’s no words how a simple decision of putting her with someone or in a room with an actual fixed bed could have saved her life.”

Since Mathis’ death, five people have died in or shortly after custody in the King County jails, three of them suicides. Two of those suicides involved the problematic bunk beds.

King County Department of Juvenile and Adult Detention Director John Diaz told The Seattle Times in an interview last month that the jail had been aware for “at least a year” that the bunks’ design posed a potential risk for hangings.

After a person in custody died by suicide using a bunk in June 2020, the jail began discussions to retrofit the bunks, according to jail spokesperson Noah Haglund. Construction to make the bunks safer began in 2021, though it remains incomplete.

Haglund said jail officials “deeply regret any in-custody death” and were working to prevent future ones. He also said that current jail population numbers — which have increased since the beginning of the year — require the jail to book people into cells with bunks that haven’t been fixed.

The county expects to retrofit all bunks in the jail by the second quarter of 2023, Haglund said, and has budgeted $1 million for the work.

The jail started publishing reports on deaths in custody to comply with a state law that went into effect last year. The law requires jails to send analyses of these deaths to the state Department of Health, but the department has yet to receive a single report from any jail in the state, according to the department.

At a Metropolitan King County Council briefing on the new law and recent jail deaths earlier this month, Diaz said the jail was working to “improve the lives of people under our care” by training staff on suicide awareness and prevention, reviewing mental health assessments at booking, and exploring a plan to give electronic tablets to people incarcerated in the jail.

At the same time, the jail has been slammed by an uptick in bookings, new COVID-19 outbreaks and a jail understaffing crisis — factors, Diaz acknowledged, that have “made things even more difficult.”

Since the beginning of the year, the jail’s average daily population increased by 200 people while COVID spread inside the facilities. As of June 7, 37 adults in the King County Jail system were positive for COVID.

The string of deaths has also taken its toll on staff, Diaz said in the County Council meeting. A corrections officer at the jail quit after seeing someone at the jail die by suicide, he told council members. In May, the jail system had 85 corrections officer vacancies, up from 20 in 2020.

LGBTQ+ advocates called attention to the spate of King County Jail deaths earlier this year by holding a vigil outside the jail after Damien Ortaga, a transgender 25-year-old, died by suicide in March. Before Ortaga’s death, a judge had ordered Ortaga to be released from jail by 5 p.m. on a Friday pending an evaluation from a mental health crisis responder.

The evaluation did not happen by then, and Ortaga was found unresponsive in the jail the next day. The jail’s deadline to publish information on factors that could have contributed to Ortaga’s death in custody will come next month.

Support local journalism

Your tax-deductible donation to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program will contribute to better local reporting on key issues, including homelessness, housing, transportation and the environment. Reporters will focus on narrative, investigative and data-driven storytelling.

Local journalism needs your help. It’s an essential part of a healthy community and a healthy democracy.

Community Funded Journalism logo