The Spokane County Jail inmate who died on Saturday evening was Cindy Lou Hill, a 55-year-old mother of two, her older sister said Monday.
The sister, Diane Burnett, said she had been told by the medical examiner’s office that Hill had suffered from acute peritonitis, an often-painful inflammation of the silklike membrane that lines the abdominal wall and organs.
Hill was the eighth person to die in the county’s custody in about 14 months. In a statement Monday, Dean Lynch, the chairman of the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, said the pattern “should profoundly concern all of us.”
Burnett said her sister had been in jail for several days when corrections officers reportedly found her unresponsive in her cell at about 5:30 p.m. Saturday. Court records show Hill had hearings on Thursday and Friday after she was arrested on a warrant stemming from a charge of drug possession.
Without identifying her as Hill, county spokesman Jared Webley said the woman was rushed to a hospital but ultimately confirmed dead by hospital staff. Later, at about 10:30 p.m., another woman who had been housed in a nearby cell was taken to the hospital due to a “medical emergency,” Webley said.
Officials have released few details of the incidents. The other woman, who remained in the hospital Monday evening, has not been publicly identified. Webley said he could not discuss inmates’ medical treatment due to confidentiality laws, but he said there was no common factor that made the two women sick.
“It’s not from the same source,” he said.
Peritonitis occurs when bacteria enter a person’s belly through tears in the gastrointestinal tract or other organs. Such infections can also result from dialysis treatment for kidney disease, or from cirrhosis of the liver. Treatment involves intravenous antibiotics, and sometimes surgery.
Spokane County contracts with an Alabama company, NaphCare Inc., to administer inmates’ medical care. It’s unclear what, if any, treatment Hill received in jail, but Burnett said she is angry at jail staff for not preventing her death.
“My sister should have been getting treatment,” Burnett said. “They should have taken her to the hospital.”
Burnett said Hill is survived by a teenage daughter and a son who is in his 20s. She said Hill had worked in fruit-packing warehouses in Wenatchee before the family moved to Spokane.
Along with Hill’s death, the deaths of several other inmates remain under investigation by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. In some cases, the medical examiner’s office is waiting for toxicology results from a state laboratory to inform final determinations.
Of the eight who died in the past 14 months, one other inmate was a woman; the rest were men. Three died after hanging themselves with bedsheets. Mental illness, substance abuse and complications of withdrawal appear to have been common factors.
Publicly available data on jail deaths are limited, but the rate of deaths in the Spokane County Jail appears high by any measure. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1,000 people die in American jails each year, and about a third of those deaths are suicides. From 2005 to 2014, the average annual number of jail deaths in all of Washington state was about 16, according to bureau data.
Lynch, of the human rights task force, said in his statement: “We strongly urge the county to investigate what seems to be an alarming trend of inmate deaths and take steps to make changes, evaluate previous recommendations, and implement changes so that future inmate deaths can be avoided.”
In a phone call, Lynch added that the county should seek input from outside agencies such as the National Institute of Corrections, which recommended a series of policy changes for the Spokane County Jail in 2015.
Jail officials already have hired a consultant, Lindsay Hayes, who is expected to visit in September. Hayes, a nationally recognized expert on suicide in correctional facilities, also visited the Spokane County Jail in 1999 to train staff and offer recommendations after four inmates killed themselves in less than 13 months.
Officials also have decided to stop issuing bedsheets and instead give each inmate two blankets. Sgt. Tom Hill, a jail spokesman, has said the blankets are thicker, harder to tear and harder to tie around one’s neck without drawing attention from corrections officers.
And jail officials have been working with the Spokane Regional Health District to help inmates continue receiving treatment from the health district’s opioid treatment program. The program offers methadone and buprenorphine, medications that bind to opioid receptors in the brain but block euphoric effects and prevent symptoms of withdrawal.
That program only benefits people who are enrolled before they are booked into jail. But Hill has said jail officials are working to start a separate program that would identify inmates after they are booked and provide them with buprenorphine.
Layne Pavey, a local activist for criminal justice reforms, runs a company called Revive Reentry Homes & Services, which helps connect the formerly incarcerated with stable housing. She said there was a time when she encouraged clients to “face their warrants” and turn themselves in to get their jail stays over with, but now she’s not comfortable giving such advice.
“Now I’m not sure what to tell them,” Pavey said. “Now I’m scared to tell people to face their warrants and go to jail because I do have a legitimate fear that they will die in there.”
Pavey, who also sits on a subcommittee of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, said she believes that John McGrath, the county’s top jail administrator, has made an effort to improve inmate care, but problems remain.
“What we do know about the jail is that people are constantly calling people to help in emergencies, and the guards are not coming as quickly as they should be,” Pavey said. “We hear a lot about the lack of checking on people.”