Wrongful death lawsuit filed after 2014 Whatcom County Jail suicide settled

The family of a woman who killed herself while she was incarcerated in the Whatcom County Jail in 2014 has settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Whatcom County for $350,000, according to Whatcom County Superior Court documents and a press release from the family’s lawyers.

Shannon Rose Jefferson had been in the Whatcom County Jail for around two weeks when she hanged herself in her solitary confinement cell on March 10, 2014. She was taken to the hospital, where she died several hours later, as previously reported by The Bellingham Herald. She was 36.

Jefferson was a Lummi tribal member and a mother of six. Her mother, Vicky Jefferson, brought the lawsuit on behalf of Jefferson’s estate and children, who are all members of the Lummi Nation.

“Shannon’s life mattered,” the family’s lawyer, Ryan Dreveskracht, said in a prepared statement. “We hope this settlement will cause Whatcom County to afford citizens like Shannon greater mental health care,” said Dreveskracht, who is with the Seattle firm Galanda Broadman.

Jefferson’s six children will each eventually get around $26,000, according to court documents. The rest of the money goes toward attorneys’ fees and court costs.

The settlement, in which Whatcom County accepted no liability for Jefferson’s death, was signed by a judge on Sept. 9. The lawsuit against Whatcom County was dismissed Sept. 26, roughly two years after it was originally filed, records show.

“We’re deeply saddened by her death,” Whatcom County Prosecutor Eric Richey said.

The family’s lawsuit alleged Jefferson’s death could have been prevented had she received a more timely mental health screening and treatment, and if the jail had a policy to check on people in solitary confinement more often.

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

The lawsuit alleged Jefferson didn’t receive a medical screening to determine if she was mentally or physically fit for jail until more than a week after she was booked, and that a mental health evaluation also wasn’t conducted when she was booked.

Jefferson had been in jail nearly two dozen times over 16 years. Staff and administrators had previously been told Jefferson had mental health issues and had previously tried to kill herself, records state.

Jefferson notified jail staff she wanted to speak with a mental health professional on March 6, but as of her death on March 10, she had not had contact with a mental health provider, the lawsuit alleged.

Jail staff interviewed Jefferson about the alleged assault the morning of her death and returned her to her cell, where she was left alone for nearly an hour. Jefferson was found in her cell that afternoon when she was later checked on by a corrections deputy.

The jail’s policy in 2016, when the lawsuit was filed, was 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., The Herald previously reported.

The jail’s official policy stated that all inmates receive mental health screening at the time of their booking and health assessment, and will receive a mental health evaluation if needed. The inmate’s health assessment should happen within 14 days of their booking.

Suicide has been a leading cause of death in jails since 2000. People in jail are seven times more likely to take their own lives than those housed in prisons, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.

The suicide rate among Native Americans is more than 3.5 times higher than those of non-ethnic minorities, according to the press release from Jefferson’s family. In Washington state, Native Americans make up less than 2% of the state population, but 4.5% of people in jail, according to a recent study by Columbia Legal Services.

There were at least 14 Native Americans who died in Washington and Oregon county jails between 2008 and 2018. Suicide accounted for more than a third of those deaths, according to a story by KUOW.

“There is no question that Whatcom County can do better — much, much better — to protect the lives of the people in its custody,” Dreveskracht said. “Native American and mentally ill citizens, in particular, deserve much more humane treatment.”

The Bellingham Herald has reached out to Whatcom County’s lawyer and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office for comment and more information regarding its policies.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.