By Tyler Richardson / Tri-City Herald
Inmates at the Franklin County jail are routinely subjected to inhumane and barbaric practices, according to a lawsuit filed by a Seattle-based legal-aid organization.
Mentally ill inmates are chained to a fence for days, pepper-sprayed without reason, left unsupervised in restraint chairs and forced into isolation, the lawsuit claims.
Their mental health is also ignored, said the suit filed in U.S. District Court.
In one case, a man with apparent mental-health issues allegedly bit off two of his fingers after he was repeatedly shackled to a fence inside the booking area. When he returned from the hospital after biting off the second finger, he was chained again to the fence.
Melissa Lee, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, described conditions at the newly remodeled jail as some of the worst of more than 20 county jails the organization has examined statewide.
“This (jail) is among the worst, if not the worst, we have seen,” she told the Herald. “It’s more inhumane than what we have seen in other places.”
Columbia Legal Services represents low-income clients around the state. Part of the organization, the Institutions Project, focuses on investigating inmate complaints and possible rights violations in Washington jails, prisons and other facilities.
The organization has asked a federal judge for a temporary restraining order to stop the “unconstitutional” practices because they believe inmates are at risk of being hurt.
Sheriff Richard Lathim denied his staff is mistreating any prisoners or that conditions in the jail are inhumane.
He called the lawsuit “a bunch of lies” and told the Herald inmates are motivated to lie for the hope of getting a lighter sentence or plea deal.
“We are doing things to keep employees safe,” Lathim said. “Unfortunately (the attorneys) are liberal and naive and think that if you just get everybody in a big group hug in jail, everybody will be fine. It doesn’t work like that.”
Some inmates have been destructive while in custody, and others have tried to hurt themselves, he said. Jail staff take necessary precautions to make sure the facility is not damaged and inmates stay safe.
“We are not mistreating anybody. (The lawsuit) just goes with the territory of having a jail,” he said. “People make claims all the time. We have to take actions to protect staff and other prisoners.”
Lee, the legal-service program’s coordinator, and attorney Nick Straley filed the 58-page class-action lawsuit, which lists eight inmates as plaintiffs. A majority of the inmates are at the jail awaiting trial, including Guadalupe Montejano, who is accused of killing a Pasco woman in January.
Lee said one of the biggest issues the investigation revealed was how inmates are restrained.
Inmates were strapped in restraint chairs for long periods of time, even though they didn’t pose a threat to themselves or others, the lawsuit said.
And the inmates allegedly didn’t get medical attention or much supervision, if any, while in the chair.
One inmate, Mitchell Campbell, 26, died July 12 after spending a period of time in the restraint chair, the lawsuit said. The Franklin County Coroner’s Office says Campbell died from an apparent seizure caused by alcohol or substance abuse.
Another inmate was held in a chair for about 20 hours and forced to urinate himself at least once.
One female inmate reported feeling suicidal and claustrophobic, so a jail officer “stripped her down, put her in a suicide smock and locked her to the fence.” She remained there from July 24 to July 29 until the jail staff called for a mental health professional to talk with her, said the suit.
“Jail staff regularly use the restraint chair against inmates with mental illness without providing proper mental health care or keeping them in a more appropriate setting,” the lawsuit said.
Lathim admitted that inmates are sometimes handcuffed to a fence in the booking area of the jail, though he denied they were kept there for days. He told the Herald that inmates also are sometimes put into restraint chairs, but it’s for the safety of the staff and other inmates.
Lathim said he has not read the complaint and doesn’t plan to because it “doesn’t do any good to read a bunch of lies.”
The attorneys from Columbia Legal Services are making stuff up and they don’t know what it takes to make a jail run efficiently, Lathim said.
Other complaints in the suit include:
— Placing inmates in isolation to live in “degrading and deplorable” conditions.
— Forcing inmates to sleep on concrete floors without blankets for extended periods of time.
— Pepper-spraying inmates, then providing no medical attention or way to clean up.
— Unconstitutionally locking inmates down for 23 hours a day.
— Denying inmates access to family visits, phone calls and outdoor activities.
Dale Kamerrer, with an Olympia law firm, will represent Franklin County at the federal court hearing, said Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant.