Pierce County Jail: Improvements in Medical Care To End Suit over Inhumane Conditions

News Release: 
Monday, November 29, 2010

A final settlement has been reached in a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Washington in 1995 over inhumane conditions at the Pierce County Jail. The settlement ends 15 years of court-supervised monitoring of jail conditions established under a consent decree. The ACLU has filed a motion to have inmates affected by the suit notified of the settlement.

According to the ACLU, the settlement came after Pierce County officials adopted policies that, when fully implemented, will ensure that medical care for inmates meets minimum constitutional standards for humane treatment.

There have been significant improvements in the treatment of inmates at the jail while the consent decree in the case (Herrera v. Pierce County) was in effect. During the past 15 years, the county has nearly doubled the jail’s nursing staff, added mental health staff, and re-established a Quality Improvement Committee whereby outside physicians review deaths and health care issues in order to make recommendations to improve the quality of medical care at the facility.

The ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services filed suit against Pierce County in U.S. District Court in Tacoma in 1995 over severe overcrowding and other deficiencies at the jail so serious that they violated constitutional standards. Two deaths at the jail had come when timely access to a licensed health care professional had not been given.

In 1996, the parties entered into a consent decree in the case. Pierce County agreed to alleviate the overcrowding, accommodate the religious needs of inmates of all faiths, allow inmates access to legal materials, establish a 30-bed mental health housing unit, and develop appropriate standards and policies for health care. Over the years, the parties agreed to end portions of the decree, and in 2009 they stipulated that a court-appointed monitor should consider the medical care issues remaining in the suit.

In a Report and Recommendation issued on October 15, 2010, U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Kelley Arnold found several problems persisting in health care at the jail. The report cited instances in which an inmate failed to receive adequate amounts of medication despite the fact that failure to have his medication results in a critical life threatening condition. It found failings in the inmate’s treatment “symptomatic of a dysfunction in a health care system that does not properly track and assure critical medication compliance.”

Further, the Court cited the jail’s “… failure at intake or booking to identify persons in need of chronic care treatment or mental health treatment …” The report noted that this failure can have critical consequences as suicide by hanging is the leading cause of death at the jail. The Court also raised concerns about the adequacy of alcohol withdrawal monitoring, another deficiency that can have deadly results.

Addressing these concerns, the most recent policy changes at the jail will improve its system of evaluating people for suicide watch upon booking and its system of administering medication to ensure that inmates receive medicines in the necessary frequency and prescribed dosage.