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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Study finds flaws in how Washington jails handle disabled inmates

A new study says many jails across Washington routinely fail to screen inmates properly for disabilities, delay access to medication and inappropriately place disabled inmates in solitary confinement.

The study, released last week by Disability Rights Washington, used Gonzaga Law School students to analyze policies and do site visits for all 38 jails in the state.

About 40 percent of U.S. jail inmates have some type of disability, and about 30 percent have a cognitive disability like a traumatic brain injury or autism, according to a Department of Justice report released last year. But in many cases, researchers found jails lacked policies on screening people for disabilities and mental illness beyond asking whether inmates were suicidal.

“If you’re not screening for those things, you’re not meeting people’s needs,” said David Carlson, the organization’s director of legal advocacy.

Lawyers from Disability Rights Washington’s Spokane office said they saw many problems at smaller jails, often due to physical limitations and overcrowding. Many were built in the 1980s, before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. As a result, few are set up to accommodate wheelchairs or inmates with other mobility challenges.

In some jails, researchers found inmates were housed in solitary confinement simply because they used a cane or wheelchair, and no other cells were built to accommodate them.

“People with disabilities serve longer, harder time in jail,” Carlson said.

Reisha Abolofia, one of the organization’s attorneys, toured the Adams County Jail, where there’s no recreation space or outdoor access for many inmates. She found jail staff across the state often were excited to talk to researchers about the problems with their facilities.

“The people staffing it are just trying to do their best,” said Meghan Apshaga, another Spokane-based attorney who worked on the project. “They don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done.”

Inmates also may be unable to get needed medications right away if they’re booked over the weekend or on a holiday, the report found. Some go two or three days before getting prescriptions for existing medications, and waits can be much longer at smaller jails.

“That can be devastating to a person’s mental health,” said Abolofia.

Haley Brown was among the Gonzaga students who worked on the research. She’s interested in pursuing criminal justice reform after graduating and said she wanted to learn more about how jails operate.

Students were assigned to read the policy manual for a jail over winter break, then visited a jail over spring break to see how inmates with disabilities were treated.

Brown visited the Kittitas County Jail, where she talked to several inmates with disabilities who were in solitary confinement and allowed out of their cells for only an hour or two each day. One man with severe anxiety hadn’t been outside since he was incarcerated.

“He didn’t actually know that the jail had a yard. He’d never seen it before,” she said.

Brown found the jail well-run overall, but said what she observed was “heartbreaking.”

For people with disabilities, “they’re not good places, even the best ones,” she said.

Spokane’s jail rated better than many in Washington, Apshaga and Abolofia said. It has clear policies for screening and accommodating inmates with disabilities, researchers said, and a mental health manager who works full time to coordinate services for inmates with mental health problems.

That manager, Kristie Ray, said the jail asks about past hospitalizations, medical conditions and mental illness during booking. An inmate can receive mental health services based on the answers to those questions, referral by law enforcement or behavior during classification. The jail also is ADA-compliant and has accessible cells and showers, Ray said.

Like many other jails, inmates in Spokane may end up in solitary confinement based on behavior caused by a mental illness – something researchers said was concerning.

But Ray said that’s uncommon. Most inmates with severe mental health issues are put in a special wing on the jail’s second floor, where the staff check in with them every 15 minutes and inmates are re-evaluated every 24 hours. Those inmates have access to lawyers, phone calls, showers and recreation, she said.

Inmates with mental illness who aren’t hurting themselves or are psychotic but still not stable may be put in solitary confinement until they adhere to their treatment plan, Ray said. Some are waiting for a bed to open up at Eastern State Hospital so they can be evaluated and treated.

“Isolation definitely is not beneficial for somebody with a mental illness,” Ray said.

She agrees with many advocates that the best solution is to divert these people to services rather than send them to jail.

The report is part of a larger Disability Rights Washington project to evaluate and fix jail and prison conditions for people with disabilities. In King County, the group’s lawyers have worked collaboratively to suggest reforms in the county’s two jails. As a result, King County has committed to a policy change saying that inmates who harm themselves will not be punished, said Kayley Bebber, an attorney who worked on the project.

Disability Rights Washington plans to release more in-depth reports based on their county jail survey later this year. The group also is among the plaintiffs in an ongoing federal lawsuit against the state Department of Social and Health Services that aims to decrease the amount of time mentally ill inmates wait in jail before receiving court-ordered evaluations and services at state mental hospitals.

This story has been updated to correct the name of the attorney who visited the Adams County Jail.