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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Human Rights Commission seeks investigation of Spokane jail deaths

A federal investigation is needed following the deaths of four people at the Spokane County Jail since May 4, the Spokane Human Rights Commission says.

The request was sent two months after the county won a competitive federal grant to address jail overcrowding and just before the Justice Department released a report finding that in-custody deaths nationwide increased for the third straight year in 2013.

A letter sent Friday by Blaine Stum, chair of the commission, to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division says the deaths of John A. Everitt, Lorenzo Hayes, Scott Stevens and Tammy Sue Heinen prompt concerns “that the frequency of deaths speaks to larger, systemic issues that plague the jail system in Spokane County.”

The Human Rights Commission, which voted unanimously last week to send the letter, was prompted to act because members “felt there really wasn’t a sense of urgency,” Stum said Tuesday. “We saw these deaths just continue to pile up.”

Jail staff and county commissioners have said they are reviewing their processes and procedures following the deaths of the inmates between May 4 and July 13. Reached by text message Tuesday, Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said he’d heard of the letter but hadn’t reviewed it. Mielke wrote that investigations into the deaths are ongoing.

“I find it interesting that to my knowledge, the Human Rights Commission has never asked for a briefing on the facts of any of the cases,” Mielke wrote. “Yet they cite information as if they are experts on the facts.”

Stum said he’d run into difficulty obtaining information from law enforcement on the deaths, which still are under active investigation.

Mielke said the deaths – especially that of Hayes, who died in the jail’s booking area – suggest law enforcement should screen incoming inmates to determine if they need immediate medical attention before being booked.

“But that presumes medical facilities are willing to accept the liability that comes with receiving someone who is having a medical crisis and is also acting out violently,” Mielke wrote.

John McGrath, director of the Spokane County Jail, did not respond to requests for comment.

The number of deaths at the Spokane County Jail this summer has exceeded totals for the past several years. Everitt and Hayes died just weeks before the county received notice from the MacArthur Foundation it had won a $150,000 grant that will be used to establish a better system to determine who should be in custody at the jail and who should be funneled into other criminal justice programs outlined in the so-called “Blueprint for Reform.” The county will have to report to the foundation at the end of the year in hopes of attaining even more grant dollars.

A national report released Tuesday by the Justice Department indicates jail deaths aren’t an issue Spokane County is facing alone.

In 2013, in-custody deaths nationwide increased for the third straight year, according to the annual “Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons” report, which was released Tuesday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Across the country, 967 inmates died in 2013, according to the report, with the most likely causes of death being suicide, heart failure and drug or alcohol intoxication.

White men in their late 40s who have been incarcerated for less than a week are the most likely group to die in custody, according to the report.

While details of the recent deaths remain under investigation, the county has released its findings in several other deaths that point to the complexities of health care in detention facilities.

Jessica Alvarado, 29, was found dead in her cell on Aug. 13, 2012. She’d told nurses during her booking on a bench warrant that she wasn’t taking any drugs, but she admitted to a cellmate that she had “swallowed a bunch of” illicit prescription pills, according to county records.

Jail nurses did not move her to a drug withdrawal monitoring section of the jail, according to reports from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. Alvarado’s cellmate was moved when she complained the 29-year-old was vomiting all night, keeping her awake. Within a day she had died, and an autopsy found opiates and methamphetamine in her system, according to county records.

After Alvarado’s cellmate was moved, she was checked by jail guards about every 30 minutes during regular rounds, according to records. Sometime between 11:30 p.m. and 12:03 a.m., Alvarado fell unconscious, according to incident reports. Life-saving efforts were unsuccessful.

Stum acknowledged that jails and prisons are being asked to deal with sections of the population that would be better left for mental and medical health professionals. But he said attention needs to be brought to the issue, referencing a talk he had with a female relative of Heinen, the woman who died in custody July 13.

“She felt kind of hopeless about the whole situation,” Stum said. “We felt that somebody needed to do something.”