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Pierce County jail inmates say sewage backflow persists after federal settlement

An inmate huddles under a heavy blanket on a bunk in the psychiatric unit of the Pierce County jail in Tacoma, Wash. in 2014.
Elaine Thompson
/
AP
An inmate huddles under a heavy blanket on a bunk in the psychiatric unit of the Pierce County jail in Tacoma, Wash. in 2014.

Inmates at the Pierce County Jail are sounding the alarm about a plumbing issue that has caused raw sewage backflow and a putrid smell that they say has led to illness and infections, particularly in the mental health unit.

A spokesperson for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the jail, declined to comment citing ongoing litigation. Pierce County Council and county health officials told KNKX they weren’t aware of the numerous complaints.

"When we wake up, there's raw sewage in our toilets, on our toilet seats and at times on the floor," inmate Echo Wolfclan told KNKX during a phone call. "There's poop. There's pee. It smells bad. And we asked them for cleaning supplies. Can we clean this up? You know and they tell us no, it's not their problem.”

Last year, Wolfclan said he agreed to settle a federal complaint with Pierce County for $33,000 in hopes the issue would be fixed. His lawsuit, filed under his birth name Justin Davey, uncovered a 2014 engineering report that describes the potential for toilet overflow and contamination in the jail. The report recommended replacing the jail's toilets and other plumbing.

Pierce County Council Chair Ryan Mello told KNKX the settlement with Wolfclan was below the threshold for a Council vote.

Before filing his federal complaint, Wolfclan said jail maintenance staff told him the mental health unit was the worst off because it's downstream in the plumbing system. Many of those inmates languish in jail for monthsawaiting competency restoration at state facilities. Wolfclan said he's been waiting for over a year.

When Wolfclan was arrested again this year, he said the sewage issue was worse and inmates were ready to plead out rather than wait for treatment. He said sewage backflows every time a toilet is flushed, sometimes like an eruption.

“It's caused people to want to take the deal and get the hell out of this place, which is against our sixth amendment right to a fair trial,” Wolfclan said.

Court records show Wolfclan helped a number of inmates file federal civil rights complaints of their own. He said he's attempting to start a class action lawsuit with other inmates.

A spokesperson for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said its jail inspections focus on food preparation and officials have received no complaints about plumbing issues.

A legislative task force is set to make new recommendations for statewide jail oversight and inspections this fall.

Jared Brown is a Tacoma-based reporter for KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions. He is currently a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow. You can email him at jbrown@knkx.org.