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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State agrees to penitentiary improvements for inmates with mental health needs

Washington will spend some $5 million to improve the conditions of inmates with mental health needs housed at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla to settle a federal lawsuit, attorneys for the inmates said.

Disability Rights Washington and Spokane attorneys that included Andrew Biviano sued the Department of Corrections over conditions for mentally ill inmates at Walla Walla that were far more restrictive than those for similar inmates at the Monroe Correctional Center.

Inmates with mental health problems in Walla Walla were held in cells for up to 15 hours per day and did not have access to certain types of treatment and programming for their conditions, Heather McKimmie, an attorney for Disability Rights, said. They were held in what’s known as closed custody, even though many qualified for less restrictive classifications.

The U.S. Supreme Court previously has ruled that unnecessarily segregating people with disabilities violates their civil rights, the organization said in a press release announcing the settlement.

Under the terms of the settlement, the state set aside $1.25 million in the 2019-21 capital budget for physical improvements at the penitentiary, primarily replacements of cell doors that can be locked and unlocked to give the inmates protection but more access to services.

The 2019-21 operating budget also has some $1.9 million for additional staffing at the penitentiary specifically tied to settling the lawsuit for inmates with mental health needs. The penitentiary will also increase the amount of therapeutic programming available to the inmates. The total costs of all changes is about $5 million.

The organization was unable to reach an agreement with the department through discussions, and eventually recruited the Spokane firm of Paukert and Troppmann when they decided to file a federal lawsuit.

Biviano said the firm has worked with Disability Rights Washington on several other cases.

“They called up when it came to the point where it looked like court action was necesssary,” he said. The federal lawsuit was filed in April 2018, and that may have given the state the “extra push” in negotiations, Biviano said.

An agreement between the organization and the department for changes to the cells and extra staffing for the inmates was reached early this year, but both sides had to wait to make sure the money was in the final budgets approved by the Legislature in April and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May, Biviano said. The settlement document was then drafted and submitted to U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson, who approved it last week.