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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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Washington jails have among the highest death rates in the U.S. A new law to explain why it isn’t working.


Editor’s note: This story refers to suicide. If you or a loved one is in crisis, resources are available here.

Last year, a 36-year-old man died alone in a basement cell in an Eastern Washington jail.

Kyle Lara made suicidal statements when he was booked into the Garfield County Jail, according to an $8.5 million claim filed by his family. But later, he was left so alone in a solitary cell for over 18 hours that, after he killed himself, his corpse was served meals through a slot in the door — twice.

Washington’s jail mortality rate has been climbing for 20 years, and recently it ranked as one of the highest in the country. Civil lawsuits and claims like the Lara family’s — when they’re filed — have been a rare window into conditions at Washington’s 38 county jails.

The lack of transparency around jail deaths was supposed to change in 2021, when state legislators passed a law mandating that jails file reports of unexpected deaths in custody to the Department of Health within 120 days.

But only four counties have.

The Seattle Times surveyed Washington’s county jails and found that at least 31 people have died in 15 county jail systems since the law went into effect. As of Friday, 11 of those counties have not filed a report to the state, including Garfield, even though Lara died in April 2022. The county did not respond to questions about why.

Unlike two dozen other states, Washington does not have an oversight body reviewing mandatory standards within local jails. That’s why a statewide legislative task force appears likely to recommend new standards or an oversight body to prevent more deaths. The task force began meeting last year and is set to deliver its recommendations by June 30.

“Our jails, at least in 2019, were among the most deadly in the nation, and they’re much more deadly than they used to be,” said Ethan Frenchman, a member of the task force and a staff attorney with Disability Rights Washington. “It’s a crisis that requires attention from all stakeholders in the legal system.”

Rising death rates

Washington ranked fourth highest nationwide by death rate inside its jails in 2019. That’s the latest year of data made available by the federal government, although local media across the country have reported upticks in jail deaths more recently. In 2022, four people died by suicide at Washington’s largest local jail in King County, the highest annual number in at least a decade.

The mortality rate in Washington jails has steadily risen since the early 2000s, and surpassed the national average in 2008, according to a voluntary data collection program from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The national average jail death rate has also increased over time. But the death rate in Washington jails, which in 2021 held an average of 7,576 people on any given day, has outpaced it.

Suicide has been the leading cause of deaths in jail nationwide and in Washington. But in the past two decades, the jail suicide rate here exceeded the national average by 33%, according to an analysis from the state Attorney General’s Office.

Still, attention to people who end up dying behind bars is limited.

Last fall, the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, found that 70% of the nation’s jail and prison death records submitted to the federal government in 2021 had missing elements, and the same office identified nearly 1,000 deaths that should have been reported but weren’t.

Attempted reforms

In the spring of 2019, Michael Boswell pleaded with staff at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he was incarcerated, to be treated for a growing and painful skin lesion on his back.

His requests were initially denied until he underwent an excision for the lesion in September 2019, when the growth was diagnosed as cancer. He didn’t receive another biopsy to check if cancer had spread to his lymph nodes until the following April, by which point it had metastasized. Boswell died three months later at age 37.

Appalled by the delays in Boswell’s care and spurred on by family members and advocates, lawmakers passed a law in 2021 mandating fatality reviews in Washington jails and prisons. The same year, the Legislature established a task force to determine whether Washington should have enforceable statewide standards for jails.

The law required Washington jails to report on deaths to the state. It also mandated that jail officials conduct thorough reviews on what may have contributed to them.

The law’s transparency component was important, said Laurel Jones, a task force member and assistant deputy director of advocacy at nonprofit Columbia Legal Services. In-custody deaths tend to suffer from an “out of sight, out of mind” problem for the public, she said.

Deaths at the hands of police, in contrast, have received much more scrutiny in recent years, resulting in waves of legislative reforms and four criminal charges against Washington officers.

The 2021 law was intended to bring more attention to jail deaths. It was also supposed to help reveal the root causes behind those deaths, according to Marc Stern, a correctional health care expert and affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington.

As it’s currently written, the law doesn’t require any kind of independent review of death behind bars; jails are tasked with conducting their own reviews.

“I think to really be effective, this bill needed to put that authority, that responsibility for doing these in the hands of somebody who could do it on a regular basis and be good at it,” said Stern, who served as former assistant secretary for health services at the state Department of Corrections. “And therefore ensure that the death reviews get us to move the needle.”

The law was correct to leave this authority to local jail chiefs who know their own systems, said Ric Bishop, the jails liaison for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which collects death data voluntarily submitted by jails in Washington and has helped train jail officials on the new law.

“They got it right by looking to local government,” Bishop said. “No two jails are designed exactly the same.”

Bishop, who ran the Clark County corrections division for nearly a decade, supports doing in-depth analyses to prevent deaths but said jails are concerned about the cost and staffing required to do them.

The 2021 law also excluded any kind of enforcement mechanism and allowed counties to grant themselves extensions past the 120-day report filing deadline, if they determined it necessary.

Several jails surveyed by The Seattle Times did request extensions. But others didn’t explain why they had not submitted reports.

The Chelan County Regional Justice Center, for example, saw two deaths in the fall of 2021, one of which resulted in a federal lawsuit alleging that the county jail failed to provide adequate medical care. The jail declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Five people have died in custody of the Franklin County Jail since the 2021 law went into effect. The jail did not submit reports about the deaths to the Department of Health and did not answer a question from The Seattle Times about why.

Before The Seattle Times questioned the county jails about the reports, only two had filed them. By the end of Friday, two more had.

Preventing more deaths

Jail watchdogs say some of these deaths could be avoided if people with serious mental illnesses were diverted to treatment rather than jail in the first place.

“Too often, jails are booking people who require medical or mental health hospitalization,” said Frenchman, the Disability Rights Washington attorney.

For the people who are booked into jail, he added, prevention also means providing adequate medical and mental health care inside jail walls. Yet many jails lack full-time medical and mental health staff.

Delays in access to state psychiatric hospital care only worsen conditions for incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses. Earlier this year, Disability Rights Washington filed a motion in federal court alleging that these delays violate the Trueblood vs. Washington Department of Social and Health Services agreement, an enormous federal settlement that has cost the state upward of $98 million since 2018 over an ongoing failure to provide people in jail with timely mental health services.

“The people who are in jail and prison are among the sickest people in our community,” Stern said.

Most of them, he added, will be released.

“If we deliver good health care while they’re in jail or prison,” Stern said, “we can prevent costly outcomes when they get out that we’re going have to pay for as taxpayers.”

The first step, advocates say, is finding out how these deaths occur.

In Kyle Lara’s case, his mother, Rhonda Lara, gathered all the investigative records and contacted an attorney.

But not everyone has someone to advocate for them and shed light on the facts, said Ryan Dreveskracht, the Laras’ attorney.

“Without that pressure from the public,” he said, “these things sort of tend to stay the same.”

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