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Federal judge orders pro bono attorney for Pierce County inmates suing over sewage issues

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

A federal judge in Tacoma has revived a proposed civil rights class action from more than three dozen Pierce County Jail inmates who allege long-known plumbing issues at the jail are creating unhealthy living conditions and sickening people awaiting trial.

On Sept. 1, Western District of Washington Magistrate Judge Kate Vaughan withdrew another judge’s recommendation to force the jail inmates to refile their cases individually and ordered court officials to search for attorneys to work on the case pro bono.

Echo Wolfclan is the lead plaintiff and organized the proposed class action from the jail’s mental health unit. Pierce County previously settled a similar complaint filed by Wolfclan in 2021 about raw sewage overflow for $33,000. Vaughan also worked on that case, which uncovered a 2014 engineering report that recommended replacing the jail's toilets and other plumbing due to the potential for overflowing sewage.

“Our voices really don't get heard inside, behind those bars, behind the walls. And I'm really glad that they reversed the recommendation of the last judge,” Wolfclan said.

Inmates represent themselves in more than 90% of prisoner civil rights complaints, according to recent data in the legal textbook, Incarceration and the Law. Less than 15% of those cases succeed whether or not the inmate has an attorney. Pro bono attorneys are only appointed in “exceptional circumstances.”

Wolfclan said it was difficult advocating for so many inmates as jail officials moved him between different areas of the facility.

“I knew that some of those inmates weren't going to be able to continue to file or continue to update court about the situation because they don't necessarily know right from wrong from where they were at that point in time,” Wolfclan said.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail, did not respond to two requests for comment about repairs to plumbing in the jail.

A legislative task force is scheduled to make new recommendations for statewide jail oversight and inspections in October.

Jared Brown was a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow based at KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions.