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Family of man who died by suicide in jail suing Spokane County

July 7, 2021 Updated Wed., July 7, 2021 at 7:32 p.m.

The family of a man who died by suicide in the Spokane County Jail is suing the county for $2.2 million.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The family of a man who died by suicide in the Spokane County Jail is suing the county for $2.2 million.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The family of a man who died by suicide at the Spokane County Jail is suing the county for $2.2 million, arguing he wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for glaring oversights and a host of chronic issues at the long-troubled facility.

Patrick Flynn, 36, was arrested on May 17, 2018. Two days later, he hanged himself with a bedsheet from the top bunk in his cell.

Flynn was one of eight inmates who died in the jail during a 14-month window, and one of three who died by hanging. In the last 20 years, more than a dozen people have died in the county jail.

The Flynn family’s civil rights complaint is just the latest lawsuit filed by a family who lost a loved one to suicide at the jail. In 2020, Chris Rogers’ family sued the county for $5.25 million. Rogers also died after hanging himself with a bedsheet.

Jeffry Finer, the Flynn family’s lawyer, said he’s aware of two pending lawsuits filed on behalf of men who died by suicide at the jail and added he believes there could be more jail death lawsuits coming.

Finer said he couldn’t talk about the Flynn case specifically, but he emphasized that the jail has been extremely overcrowded, understaffed and inadequate for how the county has been using it.

The jail has made improvements in the last couple years, but the facility was deeply dysfunctional in 2018, Finer said.

“Spokane’s bad reputation may be unearned, there are surely worse jails,” he said. “But it’s just had the bad fortune of being designed for a particular purpose and then, because of economics and growth, it’s been dedicated to a much more intensive use than it was made for.”

In the lawsuit, Finer notes that the jail was designed to hold 483 inmates. In 2018, the facility held upwards of 700 inmates at times, putting it at 45% above capacity.

The lawsuit also alleges that the jail was understaffed in addition to being overcrowded.

Spokane County “intentionally failed to adequately fund and invest in the necessary training to maintain a reasonably safe facility,” the lawsuit alleges.

That combination of too many inmates and too few guards and personnel led to a host of issues, Finer said.

“We’ve got way too many people in way too small a jail,” Finer said. “So what do you suppose happens? Things go off the rails.”

The lawsuit notes that the jail’s death rate in 2017 and 2018 was 84.5 deaths per 100,000 inmates, higher than any similarly sized county jail in the U.S.

In addition to generally arguing that the jail was overwhelmed and dealing with a slew of major problems, the lawsuit alleges that staff made specific, glaring mistakes that led to Flynn’s death.

The county did know, or should have known that Flynn was a suicide risk, the lawsuit alleges, and the county should have acted accordingly to prevent his death.

Flynn’s suicide was foreseeable, the lawsuit argues, because law enforcement, jail staff and the jail’s contracted medical provider all knew he was a suicide risk.

The lawsuit alleges that jail records show Flynn was on suicide watch the day he died. The jail’s contracted medical provider’s records “did not flag him for suicide watch per policy,” the lawsuit states.

Jail personnel knew Flynn was a suicide risk because he was screened when he was booked into the facility, the lawsuit says.

While the lawsuit alleges the jail made specific mistakes that led to Flynn’s death, it also makes the case that the jail’s policies generally increased the likelihood of suicides.

Inmates with suicidal thoughts often downplayed them in order to avoid being placed on the suicide watch, because being placed on watch led to a host of restrictions, the lawsuit alleges.

Spokane County spokesman Jared Webley said the county is declining to comment on the pending litigation.

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