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Monday, July 28, 2008

Allegations Of King County Jail Abuses Continue

The King County Jail, located in downtown Seattle Washington, serves as a detention center for both pretrial detainees and convicted felons in the greater Seattle and King County area.

In November of last year a Department of Justice investigation into that facility found, what it termed, egregious and deadly constitutional rights violations that directly caused the death of at least one detainee, if not more. Currently the DOJ and King County government are in negotiations over whether they will fix the problems and how they would go about doing that if they do. In the meantime a class action lawsuit is in progress against King County on behalf of a large number of detainees who contracted drug-resistant MRSA infections and suffered harm due to a lack of medical care and the unsanitary conditions in that facility.

Of course, everyone understands that people make mistakes and, while King County refused to agree that the problems in their jail rose to being violations of detainee rights, they did acknowledge that mistakes have been made. Accordingly, the expectation was that after being notified of these problems the King County government was taking steps to fix them... but such an expectation may be too generous.

To that end, in addition to a complaint we received a few months ago about a woman who was denied medication at the facility, we've received an email from a mother of an inmate in the King County Jail earlier this month who expressed serious concerns about how her son was being treated. She was distraught not only over her concerns about mistreatment, but also the apparent lack of action to address those concerns on the part of King County and its Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and was searching for anyone who could help. Her son, Sam, was a prisoner at the King County Jail at the time and had been there since April after being charged for robbery. He later plead guilty to those charges and told the court that he was willing to serve his time in order to answer for what he did. But, his mother claims, he didn’t intend that serving his time would leave him permanently harmed.

On April 29th a complaint filed by Sam claims that a guard approached him and asked if Sam was "sweet on him", to which Sam replied that he wasn't. It was then that Sam says he was slammed against a wall by the guard and taken to isolation for 12 hours without explanation. He filed a grievance over the incident and, as a result, his treatment only got worse… he claims that guards exacted retaliation against him as the result of his filing a complaint over the incident.

Sam alleges that the retaliation escalated up to a June 18th incident where Sam, who was assigned to stay in the "suicide tank" after the first incident, claims he was told to "cuff up" following a disturbance in the tank he was in. (In the jail, a tank is a larger cell that holds several smaller cells or bunks along with a small communal area). Sam says he refused to cuff himself because he claimed he wasn't a part of the disturbance and he asked for a sergeant to be called in to intervene and ensure he was treated fairly.

When a sergeant arrived Sam says that the sergeant put him in handcuffs and, while he was still handcuffed, the guards then grabbed him in a "hair hold technique" and dragged him by his hair to isolation. (A "hair-hold technique" is an older control move used by guards in the past but has since been outlawed in most jails because of the potential for harm, the use of this technique was sited as a significant problem in the DOJ report and the DAJD pledged to stop officers from using this outdated technique at that time).

After being dragged by his hair to an isolation cell, Sam claims he was brutally beaten, kicked, and then his legs were kicked out from underneath him so that he landed with the full force of his weight on his head, without having his hands free to stop his fall. He claims he was then jumped on by 5 to 6 different guards and picked up off the ground with such force that the handcuffs cut into his wrists. Sam then claims that after the beating was over that the sergeant that he had asked for to ensure his fair treatment said "Ah... Now I think I'll go have a beer" and he was left on the floor in a pool of his own blood for an undetermined amount of time.

At some point later, after the beating, a psychologist assigned to evaluate Sam came to check on his condition and noted that he was still laying on the floor in a pool of his own blood and ordered that he be taken to Harborview Medical Center for treatment. Sam spent 6 hours at the hospital having his injuries treated and was then sent back to jail. Sam claims that he still suffers from severe headaches and nerve damage in his hands and arms as a result of the beating to this day.

Sam spent 9 days in isolation after returning to the jail, and then was sent back to isolation yet again for another incident where Sam claims guards harassed him by repeatedly asking him if he “had a problem” over and over again. All told, Sam claims he spent over 26 days in isolation as punishment for his filing of a complaint over that first incident for which Sam claims that he had been targeted for as retaliation.

Sam's mom was understandably worried that Sam would be mistreated further because, even while the jail said it was investigating Sam's complaints, the investigations into his claims were going to take months from what she was told by jail administrators. So her primary concern was that while the investigation dragged on for months nothing was being done to protect Sam from further abuse and retaliation. His mother said she was heartbroken over his mistreatment and the perceived indifference over his well-being in that facility on the part of jail staff and county officials.

Sam's mother also says that as a part of the investigative process Sam was subjected to a polygraph test to ascertain whether he was telling the truth about his complaint. She says that he passed that test but that she is unaware as to whether the guards were subjected to the same test. She says that she has worked tirelessly to try to get the abuse to stop but to no avail. She contacted several government officials and jail staff regarding the ongoing complaints but the same answer always came back... These investigations take months and in the meantime, her son had been put back under the care of the same guards who he filed a complaint against in the first place and she only wanted to know that her son would be safe while he repays his debt to society...

That was when she reached out to us out of desperation; reassurances by the jail that his needs were being met left her distrustful: "Of course, they are not and I know that the opposite is true. He is on 15 minute watch, in which guards use the opportunity to taunt, belittle, and harass him regularly. I might add that my son has been the constant target of physical and emotional abuse because of valid complaints he submitted against certain guards. He committed a crime, has pled guilty and is willing to do "time" for it-- however, he should not have to suffer unnecessary harassment and abuse..."

In the DOJ report on constitutional violations at the King County Jail, the investigatory process was sited as problematic in addition to problems with physical abuse by guards and a lack of reasonable medical care for injured detainees. If true, the allegations that Sam's mother brought to our attention would indicate that the jail has done little to address the problems the Department of Justice outlined for them and had offered to help them fix. Meanwhile, a starkly similar case of jail brutality in Chicago just cost that city $750,000 in a jury trial decision earlier this month.

While we are hopeful that the jail is investigating Sam's complaints, the main concern we had is that there was no mechanism to protect him from retaliation for making those complaints. We asked the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division if they had comments on the story or progress of talks between the county and the DOJ over the violations they uncovered at the jail but they chose not to respond to our requests this time and in the past have stated they do not comment on cases that are currently ongoing.

We also asked the DAJD for information about this case and whether there were any policies concerning retaliation in response to complaints by inmates. Their response was that they are not free to comment on any ongoing investigations but they did forward us a copy of what appears to be a letter to staff outlining that it is illegal and against DAJD policy to retaliate against anyone who files a complaint. However, the document did not outline any process or mechanism to protect someone who filed a complaint and was dated 07/16/08 so we cannot determine if this was sent to any staff members or just created in response to our request. (Link to KC DAJD Anti-Harassment Memo). The memo also does not mention any steps that could be taken to protect someone who alleges ongoing abuse or retaliation while investigations are proceeding.

Ultimately, while King County has been given ample opportunities to correct their mistakes, we also hope that they give Sam a chance to be held accountable for his mistakes in a manner that is consistent with the spirit and letter of the law that protects detainees from cruel and unusual punishment as well... regardless of whether the jail intends to be accountable for their own mistakes.

(Note: this article was originally set to publish on July 17th while Sam was still in the King County Jail but we held it back at the request of Sam and his mother who feared retaliation for it being published. Sam has since been transferred to a different facility and has given us permission to publish his story as a result.)

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