Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Parents Wait To See If Criminal Charges Will Be Filed Over Their Son’s Death In Island County Jail

Ashley Gross
Keaton's half-sisters; Vivian and Mia, with their mom, Susan; at a vigil outside the jail on the one-year anniversary of his death.

A year ago this month, a young man named Keaton Farris was found naked on the floor of his jail cell in Coupeville on Whidbey Island.

He was dead. The cause was dehydration and malnutrition.

In the wake of that terrible loss, his family has made it their mission to make sure nothing like that ever happens again at the jail. And they still await word on whether a prosecutor will file criminal charges against the people who were responsible for his care.

On April 7, the one-year anniversary of Keaton’s death, the sky was a brilliant blue in Coupeville as Fred Farris pointed out the raised garden bed that he and Keaton built together. His son had loved gardening ever since he was a toddler growing up on Lopez Island. 

“We’re still getting some of the same stuff that he planted a couple of years ago,” Farris said.

Farris cherishes that life that springs up from the ground. It’s a legacy left behind by his son, a sensitive young man who loved the beach and wanted to be a writer.

Keaton was 25 years old when he was picked up by police last year at a bank in Lynnwood. He suffered from bipolar disorder. He told the officer that he was projecting his thoughts at the people inside and said he was “off his meds,” though he had an anti-anxiety medication, Lorazepam, with him.   

Credit photo courtesy of Fred Farris
Keaton Farris

Missed Court Date

Fred Farris said his son was suffering from anxiety because he had missed a court date in San Juan County after failing to meet up with his mom for a ride.

“I know that he was anxious about the court date,” Farris said. “I think that’s where it really started to get to him.”

Keaton had allegedly forged and cashed a check for $355. He had an arrest warrant, so the officer took him to Lynnwood Jail.

That started a grim odyssey from which he never emerged. He was shuttled to Snohomish County Jail, then Skagit County Jail, and finally to Island County Jail, seven miles from where his dad lives. He arrived there without his medication and no medical paperwork.

Fred Farris called the jail to tell them what medicine his son needed and tried to get in to see him. He spoke with the lieutenant who said maybe he could visit. He said she told him she’d call him back, and when she didn’t after several hours, he called her.

“She got on the phone and she didn’t even say hi or anything. It was just, `I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen today,’” Farris said. “`You’re not going to be able to visit. Try tomorrow’s visiting.’”


Farris said he was working the next day so his sister went, but she wasn’t allowed in either. She had been allowed to visit Keaton one earlier time, on March 30, and spoke to him through his jail cell door.

But they didn’t know the situation was so grave.

“You know, you never in a million years thought this was where it would all end up,” Farris said.

It’s clear from an investigation report released last summer that Keaton was in a crisis during his almost two weeks at Island County Jail. He was hardly talking. He was found at one point with a rag hanging out of his mouth. He flooded his cell and was found dunking his head in the toilet. Jail staff turned off the water and then crucially did not make sure he got enough to drink.

The only medical attention he got was a two-minute visit by the jail nurse who spoke to him from outside the door of his cell. She didn’t do a hands-on examination, and according to the investigation report, she “did not ask for the cell door to be opened because she had heard the staff talking about him being violent, disruptive and uncooperative.”

He spent hours without anyone checking on him. Two guards falsified the log after his death to make it look like they had done the checks they were supposed to.

At 3:30 a.m. on April 8, Fred Farris was woken by the coroner and a deputy at his door.

“I was asleep and wondering – what? Somebody’s knocking at the door,” he said. “That’s weird, you know?”

They delivered the news no parent ever wants to hear. His son had died at the jail. He weighed just 125 lbs.

“I said, `You got the wrong house. That’s not Keaton. He doesn’t weigh 125 lbs.,” Farris said. “I gave him a hug a month ago. He was all of 175 lbs.”

`He Just Laid There Dead'

Farris said his son was deprived of very basic things – water and attention.

“They were supposed to be checking him every hour, but they didn’t, and he just laid there dead on the cold, dirty jail floor for seven hours,” he said.

Keaton’s death set in motion many changes at Island County Jail.

Sheriff Mark Brown, who oversees the jail, pushed out the previous chief and fired the lieutenant. The two deputies who falsified the logs have resigned. The nurse has also left. Sheriff Brown said this has been the hardest thing he’s encountered in his 42-year career.

“We had a failure of really thoroughly doing our job,” Brown said.

He brought in a new chief jail administrator, Jose Briones, who was hired partly because of his experience at the state prison in Monroe working with inmates suffering from mental illness.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Jose Briones, the newly hired chief jail administrator of Island County Jail

An outside corrections expert reviewed the jail and gave recommendations for improvements. Briones has been busy making lots of changes, including adding nursing staff so that there’s medical coverage seven days a week, and establishing a procedure to ensure everyone gets enough food and water.

Working With People With Mental Illness

Plus, Briones said everyone is getting trained on how to work with people with mental illness.

“The old days of policing where you’d come in and deal with the person very firm and very aggressively to show them you’re in charge, when you have somebody who’s already afraid and who’s already suffering some form of a paranoia or disability, to come in and approach them that way will only likely make the condition worse and not get them to go where you need them to go,” Briones said.

Fred Farris and Keaton’s mother, Tiffany Ferrians, reached a $4 million settlement with Island, Skagit and San Juan counties late last year. Under the settlement, an outside expert will monitor Island County Jail for 18 months.

But what about other jails?

Mark Cooke, policy director of the ACLU of Washington, said the state lacks an oversight system for making sure improvements at one county jail get applied elsewhere.

“I know a lot of jails are really trying to do a better job of dealing with people that have mental illness issues that are in their institutions, but it’s very variable, so that in one jail you might get some pretty decent care and in others you might get nothing,” Cooke said.

Ultimately, he said jails shouldn’t be de facto mental health institutions. The state needs to invest in more therapeutic options for people in crisis. Cooke said Washington ranks near the bottom in psychiatric bed capacity.

Honoring Keaton

As the sun started to set on April 7 last week, Fred Farris gathered outside Island County Jail with his wife Susan and their two daughters. They met up with friends to light candles and honor Keaton exactly one year after he took his last breath inside his jail cell.    

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Fred Farris says of his son: "Everyone seemed to gravitate toward him. He always saw the light in the other person."

They scattered rose petals in front of an arrangement of flowers decorated with a few photos of Keaton. There was also a sign with a saying Keaton came up with that his family has since printed on t-shirts. The saying is: “I see your hate and raise you one love.”

Keaton’s grandmother, Mary Pickering, said she’s trying to imagine what his state of mind was.

“Everything that he did in that jail was a cry for a help,” she said. “If you flood the toilet, or you have a rag in your mouth, I mean, there’s different ways of crying out and I believe that’s what he was doing.”

Family members and friends stood in a circle and wiped away tears. Fred Farris said he never thought about the jail until his own son wound up there.

“There’s people in here, they’re sons, they’re brothers, grandsons, friends, all of them, just like us, and sometimes as we’ve learned, they’re unable to care for themselves and so it’s each of us that can make a difference,” he said, choking up.

The FBI has been investigating, and the Whatcom County prosecutor is evaluating whether to file criminal charges over Keaton’s death.

Fred Farris said he’s not looking for vengeance. He said he simply wants accountability and for the people who were supposed to care for his son to have their day in court.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.