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ACLU Sues Pierce County Over Treatment Of Mentally Ill Inmates

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
A Pierce County corrections deputy walks the psychiatric unit of the Pierce County Jail on Oct. 15, 2014

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Pierce County, claiming jail inmates with mental illness are treated poorly and denied access to care. 

Washington's branch of the ACLU filed the class-action lawsuit in federal court in Tacoma on Monday.

It claims one inmate who experiences hallucinations was left alone, naked and handcuffed in a cell.

Another inmate who has a history of suicide attempts was told the jail was "not set up" to treat his depression and anxiety, according to the lawsuit. 

Those inmates, Donald Bango and Scott Bailey, are plaintiffs in the case.

Washington ACLU spokeswoman Amy Roe says poor mental health treatment contributes to a “revolving door” in the criminal justice system.

“People end up going into incarceration, decompensating," she said. "They’re not doing well. And when they get out, they’re worse off than when they went in. So that makes it more likely that they’re going to have further contact with the criminal system. It makes it less likely that they’re going to stabilize.” 

The lawsuit claims inmates sometimes wait months to see a mental health provider face-to-face, experience delays in getting medication, and are sometimes denied treatment altogether. 

The ACLU is not seeking damages in the case, but is hoping to secure a court order compelling the county to "ensure incarcerated individuals with mental illness are treated humanely and receive necessary mental health treatment,” ACLU attorney Antoinette Davis said in a news release.

A Pierce County spokeswoman said the county does not comment on pending litigation.

But, on Monday, the county said it received a $2 million grant to improve mental health treatment for inmates, prevent reentry into the criminal justice system, and divert people into treatment instead of jail. 

The grant stems from a 2014 class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Social and Health Services over delays in mental health competency evaluations and treatments for people accused of crimes. That lawsuit is known as the Trueblood case

Programs funded with the 18-month grant are expected to begin in March. Pierce County officials plan to contract with the Lakewood-based nonprofit Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare to provide mental health treatment in the jail and court system. 

“This project creates a connection and partnership between the criminal justice system and behavioral health that is vital to reducing the cycle of arrests for individuals with mental illness,” Deanna Carron, director of forensic services for Greater Lakes Mental Health, said in a news release.

This is not the first time Pierce County's jail has come under scrutiny by the ACLU. In 1995, the nonprofit civil rights organization sued the county claiming "inhumane" conditions existed at the jail, including overcrowding and inadequate healthcare. 

That lawsuit resulted in 15 years of court-supervised monitoring of conditions at the jail that ended with a 2010 settlement

The ACLU said in 2010 that there had been "significant improvements in the treatment of inmates" since the 1995 lawsuit was filed. 

But a judge noted some continuing problems at the time, including "failure at intake or booking to identify persons in need of chronic care treatment or mental health treatment." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.