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Wrongful death suit filed against Whatcom County after suicide at jail

A maximum security cell block is shown at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham.
A maximum security cell block is shown at the Whatcom County Jail Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

The mother of a woman who killed herself while she was in Whatcom County Jail in 2014 has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Whatcom County, claiming her daughter’s death could have been prevented.

Shannon Rose Jefferson had been in Whatcom County Jail for about two weeks when she hanged herself with a bed sheet in her solitary confinement cell on March 10, 2014. She was cut down after she was found, CPR was performed and she was taken to St. Joseph hospital, where she died several hours later.

The suit, filed in Skagit County Superior Court on Thursday, Sept. 15, claims that her death could have been prevented had Jefferson received a more timely mental health screening and treatment she needed for mental health issues, and also could have been prevented had the jail had a policy to check on people in solitary confinement more often and “rescue inmates in peril in a timely fashion.”

The complaint was filed by attorneys from the Seattle firm Galanda Broadman on behalf of Vicky Jefferson, Shannon’s mother.

“We with the Jefferson family, of the Lummi Nation, remain deeply saddened that our (loved) one’s life was interrupted while housed at the Whatcom County Jail,” Vicky Jefferson wrote in a statement provided to The Bellingham Herald.

“We also are worried about other vulnerable tribal citizens and community members whose cries for help go unanswered by the County jail staff and who are not provided with adequate medical and mental health care treatment while incarcerated at the Whatcom County Jail.”

Timeline

Jefferson was booked into jail on Feb. 26, 2014, for failure to appear in court for fourth-degree assault and a probation violation. She was immediately placed in a solitary confinement cell away from other inmates who had allegedly assaulted her, and allowed out of her cell for one hour per day, according to the suit.

Jail staff completed a medical screening form meant to determine if someone is physically and mentally fit for jail more than a week after she was booked, and did not conduct a mental health evaluation when she was booked, the complaint alleges.

When the medical screening was done, Jefferson said she hadn’t “seen the psychiatrist for treatment or hospitalization” (which was true, if this meant the jail psychiatrist), had not ever attempted to harm herself or attempt suicide (which was false) and noted that she had taken medication for depression, the complaint states.

She had been in and out of the jail nearly two dozen times over 16 years, and staff and administrators previously had been told Jefferson had been admitted to a psychiatric facility in April 2005 after “an apparent deliberate drug overdose,” according to the complaint.

During previous stays, Jefferson had told staff she had thought about suicide in the past, had anxiety while incarcerated and on at least three occasions in 2012 and 2013 had asked to see a mental health professional to talk about being put on medication because she was depressed, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges that even though jail staff said they referred Jefferson to mental health after each notification from her, including on March 6, 2014, “as of her suicide on March 10, 2014 ... Shannon had yet to have contact with a single Jail ‘mental health’ provider in the past nine years, despite multiple requests and referrals for her serious mental health condition.”

Although our loved one’s cries for help went ignored, and her mental health conditions went untreated, this lawsuit aims to ensure that this will never happen again.

Vicky Jefferson, Shannon Jefferson’s mother

“Had jail staff treated Shannon’s mental health conditions, and followed its own policies and Washington law regarding medical and mental healthcare treatment for inmates, accommodations could have easily been made that would have kept Shannon safe and alive,” Gabe Galanda, attorney for Vicky Jefferson, wrote in an email.

Two days before her death, Jefferson had been sexually assaulted by another female inmate who forced an “open mouth kiss” on her after stating she had just put her mouth on another inmate’s genitals, and after the two inmates laughed and taunted her, Jefferson hit one of them in the face, the complaint states.

Jail staff interviewed Jefferson about the assault the morning of her death and returned her to her cell.

After she was back in, she was left alone for nearly an hour, according to the jail’s security system, which is below the national standard of being observed at least every 30 minutes for inmates in solitary confinement, according to the complaint.

When she was checked on, a deputy saw she was hanging by a sheet attached to her window and tried to open the door but wasn’t able to get inside for about a minute, the complaint alleges. A jail nurse helped perform CPR, and Jefferson was taken to the hospital where she died.

Her family is seeking damages.

“Although our loved one’s cries for help went ignored, and her mental health conditions went untreated, this lawsuit aims to ensure that this will never happen again,” Vicky Jefferson said in her statement.

“We seek to hold Whatcom County accountable for its reckless disregard and indifference to inmates’ rights and safety. Our lawsuit explains where different actions taken by jail staff would have prevented this tragedy. Hopefully Whatcom County will institute lawful practices in the future, and not let one more cry for help go unanswered.”

County policy

Whatcom County Jail Chief Wendy Jones couldn’t comment on the suit, but said the jail’s policy is to do a “hard count” of inmates four times per day, check on inmates at least once an hour from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., and then check on them every 30 minutes between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“That’s been policy for probably 15 to 20 years,” Jones said.

An attorney for Whatcom County did not return a call seeking comment Monday, Sept. 19.

The jail’s official policy states that “all inmates receive mental health screening at the time of booking and their health assessment, and if positive for mental health issues, will receive a mental health evaluation.”

The policy goes on to state that “trained nurses screen for mental health issues at the time of the patient’s health assessment – within 14 days of admission.”

The policy also states that “inmates will receive mental health services as needed and on request” and that inmates “suffering from signs of clinical depression, delusions, visual or auditory hallucinations, a history of bi-polar like episodes, or a history of poorly controlled impulsive behavior, as well as inmates in segregation will be referred to the mental health liaison and/or the jail psychiatrist.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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