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Thursday, October 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Once a notorious Spokane criminal, Eldorado Brown began injuring himself in prison. After punishing him, the state paid him $92,000.

UPDATED: Fri., May 26, 2017, 11:04 a.m.

Eldorado Fleetwood Cadillac Brown pulled up the sleeves of his gray prison sweatshirt to reveal wrists scarred from repeated cuts. Cuts with razor blades, staples, paper clips, almost anything sharp the longtime prison inmate can get his hands on.

He says he has an addiction. For years, the Washington Department of Corrections said he had an attitude and behavior problem. A psychologist says he has a mental illness.

All three might be right. But for years, the way the department handled inmates like Brown who deliberately harm themselves seemed tailor-made for the activity to continue.

After medical treatment, they would receive an infraction and be put in solitary confinement. If the self-harm continued they could lose the good time they had earned that would shorten their sentence. If it still continued, they could be charged with a felony, and have as many as five years added to their sentence.

Through negotiations with the nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Washington, the department agreed to change its policies and procedures in 2014 so that inmates who try to harm themselves get better mental health treatment and don’t face longer incarceration.

Brown – who was repeatedly punished for self-harm, charged and convicted of persistent prison misbehavior and had his sentence extended in 2010 – recently was awarded $92,000 from the state to settle a pair of federal lawsuits that stemmed from his treatment.

He has set up a website TheIncarceratedTruth.com to describe prison life, and plans to use some of that money to set up a nonprofit to help inmates when he gets out in November.

***

When Eldorado Brown was growing up in Spokane in the 1990s, his family was well-known to police for its criminal activity. Mug shots of his father, mother, brother, uncle, aunt and cousins were part of a chart in the July 3, 1994, edition of The Spokesman-Review labeled “Crime is a Family Affair.”

That wasn’t a stigma in his neighborhood around Fifth Avenue and Freya Street, he said. “It was bragging rights.”

His first arrest was about six months later, a burglary of a nearby home with some friends. On Dec. 22, they stole presents under a Christmas tree, unwrapping packages and discarding the ones they didn’t like while walking down the alley. Police followed the trail of crumpled holiday paper to Brown’s home and arrested him.

He was 11, and clearly not a criminal mastermind.

About a year later, he was staying at his older brother Jason’s apartment at North Foothills Drive and Perry Street when he and some friends broke into a car dealership, stole some keys to cars on the lot and went joyriding. They drove cars down steep streets on the South Hill, he said, launching into the air from the bumps until they ripped the oil pans out. They parked the damaged cars in a nearby church parking lot. Police came looking for Brown because, he said, he was always a likely suspect for criminal mischief in the neighborhood.

But being out joyriding may have saved Eldorado’s life that night, keeping him out of a bad place at a very bad time. He was gone from his brother’s apartment when someone who may have been unhappy with one of Jason’s many drug deals showed up and shot three people, killing two of them and seriously wounding the third, who jumped out a window in Eldorado’s bedroom. The murders have never been solved.

***

The first time Eldorado Brown cut his wrists, 10 years ago, he says he really was trying to commit suicide.

He was in prison, where he’s spent much of his adult life, serving time for assault with a deadly weapon. His former girlfriend Erica, with whom he has a daughter, had just informed him she was cutting ties between him and the girl, who was turning 7.

“I didn’t want to live,” he recalled.

He and Erica met when he was 17 and she was 14. Their daughter was born a year later. But Brown spent much of his daughter’s childhood behind bars; by 2007 Erica had met someone new and was pregnant with his child. She told him she was breaking off all contact.

Despondent, Brown said he tried to kill himself in his cell. Guards saw him bleeding and stopped it.

He kept cutting himself, not to commit suicide, he said, but for the release it gave him and the reaction it generated in the prison. The first few times, everyone wanted to talk to him about why he was doing it.

“It’s an addiction,” Brown said, describing a physical release that comes from his actions. “It got to the point where I’d cut on my wrists to create hours of chaos and I wouldn’t have to think about my daughter.”

Because of the cutting, he had years more time to spend in prison. He was violating two sections of the Washington Administrative Code that deal with inmates who commit self-harm. They could lose “good time” that shortened their sentences in exchange for good behavior, meaning they’d stay in prison longer. If it persisted after an inmate lost all good time, he could be charged with persistent prison misbehavior, a felony that could result in another five years in prison.

In 2009, Brown was charged with that felony in Mason County, where the Shelton Corrections Center is located. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years, to be served concurrent with other sentences he had.

That meant he had even more time to stay in prison, act up and cut himself. At the rate he was going, he might have remained in prison for life if Disability Rights Washington hadn’t stepped in.

***

The state affiliate of a national advocacy group for the disabled, Disability Rights Washington began investigating the conditions for mentally ill inmates in state prisons in 2013 and quickly became concerned that some inmates couldn’t benefit from programs the state set up.

“A lot of them had been there for a very long time, and were essentially warehoused,” Rachael Seevers, staff attorney for the organization, said.

As part of a national project, Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities, it created a report on inmates with mental health issues who were put in segregation or “solitary confinement.” Locked Up and Locked Down argues that putting such inmates in segregation is likely to make their condition worse, and make them more likely to engage in self-harm. Brown was one of the inmates featured in a video for that report.

The organization prepared a lawsuit alleging the way the state Department of Corrections treated mentally ill inmates violated their constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. But before filing it, they sat down with department officials and worked out an agreement to change the policy.

As part of that agreement, the state agreed to remove two sections of the Washington Administrative Code that allowed inmates to be put in solitary confinement and lose good time for self harm. Good time that had been taken away from inmates strictly for incidents of self-harm would be restored.

The department had “a shortsighted practice of punishing or isolating those who are unable to control their impulses,” Deputy Director Scott Fracas said in announcing the settlement.

“There really wasn’t a lot of logic behind having that as something they can be punished for,” said psychologist Karie Rainer, who serves as the department’s director of mental health and worked on the agreement to revise the system to deal with inmates who deliberately harm themselves. It was a long-standing policy but she didn’t know how it started.

Instead of going into segregation after being treated for self-harm, an inmate is under close observation for several days with mental health reviews. If it’s the first instance, the inmate meets with a therapist to learn about ways to prevent such actions in the future, make adjustments and re-enforce safer behavior, Rainer said.

Brown, who by the time the agreement was reached had filed a federal lawsuit against the department over the way it handled his incidents of self-harm, got some of his good time back. But his conviction for misbehavior which included some instances of self-harm as well as other actions – and the five-year concurrent sentence from Mason County – remained. Eventually Brown filed another federal lawsuit over specific instances in which he contended the prison staff’s response to his self-harm violated his rights.

The state argued that while Brown may have a mental illness, he had received “thousands of hours of time and resources” for mental health care. His attempts at self-harm were voluntary, efforts to seek attention and designed to manipulate prison officials, the state argued, and he was being treated the same as any inmate who misbehaved.

The two lawsuits moved slowly forward until they were scheduled for trial in early 2017.

***

In preparing for the trial, Brown’s attorney Darryl Parker had Dr. Joshua Ginzler evaluate his client. The Seattle psychologist has done extensive work in drug use, suicide and chronic personality disorders.

Ginzler’s conclusion after hours of evaluation was that Brown suffers from multiple conditions, a combination of a traumatic family life, violence, drug and alcohol use. He has bipolar disorder, suffers from hallucinations and paranoid delusions and probably has a schizoaffective disorder.

When certain events trigger the remorse, sorrow, guilt or agony he has from his past, he cuts himself to distract himself from the pain he feels and “get from one moment to the next,” the psychologist said in a declaration to the court.

“Mr. Brown is mentally ill and unable to maintain his emotional stability,” Ginzler wrote. “Whether he intentionally abandons control in manipulation of the prison system or incapable of such control is meaningless.”

Rather than risk two jury trials, Brown and the department reached a settlement that paid him $92,000 and the suits were dismissed early this year.

Jeremy Barclay, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said he wasn’t aware of any other lawsuits involving the treatment of inmates who harm themselves. In Brown’s case, the state assessed the cost and risks of going to trial and decided to settle, Barclay said.

Parker made a similar calculation, realizing that Brown would still be a prison inmate during the time of the trial, something that would be clear to the jury.

***

While he was awaiting trial over his lawsuits, Brown completed his sentence, was released from prison in 2015 and returned to Spokane. Disability Rights Washington chose him as one of three inmates with disabilities it followed for “On the Outs,” a short documentary that shows their problems re-entering society.

He said he had asked to be released in another county because he was too well-known and had too many connections to crime in Spokane. He drove around East Central, showing a film crew areas of his old neighborhood where prostitutes worked the streets and drug deals were made.

In less than three months, he was arrested for assault and trafficking in stolen property. He eventually pleaded guilty, got three years in prison to be followed by three years of probation.

During a post-arrest interview for the documentary, Brown had bandages beneath his handcuffs. He told the interviewer that, unable to deal with the stress and loneliness of solitary confinement, he bit through the flesh on his wrist.

Ginzler said self-harm is one of many things people can do to create an emotional release. Some people use drugs or alcohol, some with eating disorders binge and purge, some engage in cutting or “non-suicidal self-injury.” It can release tension, shift the attention off a problem and create a physiological reaction from an endorphin rush.

Currently at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Brown still struggles with mental health issues and the department still struggles with ways to deal with him. During an interview earlier this month, he had still-healing cuts on one wrist being closed by tape. He did it with a staple, he said.

***

Eldorado Brown is scheduled to be released from prison in late November. This time, he’ll go to Seattle where he plans to work on his website and use part of his settlement to set up a nonprofit that would help other inmates with disabilities. Working out of the North Seattle office of his lawyer, Parker, he hopes to report on the conditions of inmates in the state corrections system.

Maybe the public doesn’t care about the conditions in the prisons, but it’s newsworthy, he insists.

He also plans to tell the stories of some of the state’s most notorious criminals, which he heard firsthand while in various segregation units for his episodes of self-injury.

Among his subjects is Spokane serial killer Robert Yates, whom Brown said he got to know while at Walla Walla. Yates has converted and found God, Brown said.

There’s a market for true crime stories, Brown said. It may be a niche market, but it’s there.

Besides, he said, “the public loves a good story.”

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