Dead-End Jail

Deaths by suicide or other causes have increased in recent years at the King County Jail, but finding out why—or by how much—isn't easy.

Hook me up to something and let me go. Don't make me wait to die.

—Three-time felon Ronald Hicks,

asking to be killed rather than sent to prison for life.

Photo illustration by Tim Silbaugh

She rammed a car while fleeing police in a stolen truck at 9 a.m. on May 9 along Martin Luther King Way South, seriously injuring a mother and critically injuring her 3-year-old son. Sabrina L. Owens felt like killing herself, and did. She was discovered six hours later in a King County Jail intake room, in her blue T-shirt and sweat pants, dangling from a cord she had ripped off a TV set. A jail guard says she was pronounced dead on the scene, then showed life signs. Comatose with brain damage from oxygen starvation, according to a medical report, she died officially at Harborview Medical Center two days later.

Owens, 36, is one of three inmates to have died in the 1,700-bed county jail this year. Or is she one of two to die there? For that matter, did she die in the jail at all? Likewise, five inmates died in the jail last year, or, again, was it just one or two? It depends on when and whom you ask. But this much seems clear: After averaging no more than one death annually from 2000 through 2002, 13 King County Jail inmates have died of suicide or natural or undetermined causes in the 26 months from May 2003 through July 2005. Jail officials, at first reluctant to release complete figures, insist they are low compared to other big-city jails. They have yet to implement full security measures to prevent another death like Owens', however, nor have they determined the circumstances of another apparent jail suicide this year.

(Getty Images / Don Tremain)

When I first learned of a publicly unreported death in the jail a few weeks back and asked officials how many inmates had died there this year, "one" was the response. Citing public-record exemptions, the jail would not release the inmate's name or any details of the death, pending release of a report when an investigation is complete. Interviews, court documents, and police and medical examiner reports, however, led to a bumbling gas-station robber named Ronald Hicks, 43, who once asked a court to kill him. This time, he apparently killed himself with a drug overdose. A custody officer then told me that the jail didn't count the deaths of inmates who die later in hospitals. So I asked officials how many inmates had died either in the jail or hospitals. "Two" became the official response—the second person, I later learned, being Owens, whose death is also still being investigated. I wrote a story (see "Unreported Jail Deaths," Aug. 10) and was invited by jail officials to tour the facility and learn about measures taken to prevent fatalities.

Riding up the elevator of the dimly lighted 19-year-old, 12-story lockup at Fifth Avenue and James Street in Seattle recently, escorted by no fewer than four corrections and health-department officials, I asked why they didn't include hospital deaths in their jail count. "We don't?" said one. "Sure we do," said another. "Who told you we don't?" said a third. It was a little uncomfortable, but I nodded to the jail information officer standing in the middle of them. He looked sheepish. "That's what they told me to say," he said, referring to higher-ups. As the elevator bumped along, Mark Bolton, deputy director of the county's Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, said he'd "check our official position on that." By the end of the tour, having consulted with other jail officials, he and the others agreed that while Owens was pronounced dead in the hospital, she was, like Hicks, who died in his cell, an official jail fatality and always was. A few days later, Bolton sent along a jail statistical chart. Since 1999 through this year, 20 inmates have died either in King County Jail custody or at a hospital—four in 1999, one in 2000, none in 2001, two in 2002, five in 2003, and five in 2004, including a Ballard man under home-detention supervision of the jail's Community Corrections Division, who hanged himself in his basement. There have been three in 2005.

I read that again. Three this year? The toll of "one" I was originally given had now become three? Between the May 11 death of Owens and the July 26 death of Hicks, it seems, another person had also died. It turned out the third inmate, an unnamed 55-year-old man, passed away in a hospital June 10 of complications from pancreatic cancer. His death did not appear to be suspicious or questionable. But why was it left off the earlier jail count I was given? "I am not sure where the 'disconnect' was on this or to whom you originally posed the question," Bolton told me. (I had posed the question to the jail spokesperson.) "I am thinking maybe there was confusion as to the question or maybe just an oversight. The correct number for 2005 is three, as noted in the report that was sent: one confirmed suicide [Owens], one pancreatic cancer [the unnamed man], and one still under review, awaiting toxicology results and determination from the medical examiner [Hicks]." Oddly, although Hicks' death was still being reviewed—and seems to mirror an earlier jail suicide attempt when he ingested as many as 150 pills—the statistical report Bolton sent me already stated that Hicks' death did not involve a suicide attempt.

To demonstrate the jail's low death rate, compared to other big cities, Bolton also gave me a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report on suicides and homicide rates in America's prisons and jails. The Los Angeles and New York jail systems were, as expected, tops with 105 and 99 deaths from all causes, respectively, during the most recent statistical period, 2000–2002. King County was tied for second-to-last in the top 50 locations with just three deaths, none from suicide, during that time. That is a rate of just one death annually in a major jail, and the county can be rightly pleased. Unfortunately, the annual rate has shot up in the two most recent years, with 10 total King County Jail deaths for 2003–2004.

At least I had a final, official count on deaths in 2005. But questions remained about the deaths. On the day of my jail tour, 44 inmates were on suicide watch. Officials stressed they were taking all possible security measures to prevent any future deaths. Telephone cords, for example, had been shortened to 8 inches. (A jail guard, though, says that measure was taken after an inmate hanged himself with a phone cord in 2003.) Arguably, the person who commits suicide is ultimately the one most responsible. Yet one of the jail's primary goals is to prevent often-distraught inmates from making such a rash and fatal decision. Owens, for one, described in redacted documents as a single woman with no felony record, was in a crisis when she arrived at the jail. Stopped by a motorcycle officer simply for not wearing a seat belt, she fled in the stolen truck, leading to a 20-block chase and causing a crash so horrific it prompted police Chief Gil Kerlikowske to visit with the family of the critically injured mother and son in the hospital. Owens, also chased on foot until caught, was brought in and ultimately left alone in a jail intake room. There she found a TV set whose accessible electrical cord she yanked off and used to hang herself. The room in which she was held is in an area now being renovated to include new security, officials say. But on the recent jail tour, I found another accessible TV cord in a jail dorm holding room.

The lawyer who represented three-strikes lifer Ronald Hicks says he had mental problems and should have been on suicide watch at the King County Jail, where he died of a cause that so far is undetermined. Officials await toxicology tests.

In Hicks' case, his attorney says, he might have hoarded his antidepressant medicine from the jail infirmary, as he apparently did during an earlier suicide attempt. (Though sentenced to life and serving time in prison at Shelton, Hicks was returned to the King County Jail to be closer to his attorney during an appeal period.) He was heard snoring loudly during the night and was found unresponsive by his cellmate at 7 a.m. on July 25. Veteran Seattle homicide detective Cloyd Steiger says he suspected a drug overdose as the cause. "There was no obvious physiological reason for his death," Steiger said. A police incident report mentions a "small spot of blood where [Hicks'] head was laying," but that remains unexplained. A toxicology report is pending, but jail officials won't speculate about the cause or whether it was a suicide. "We just don't know," says Bolton. "Maybe it was a natural death." Dr. Charissa Fotinos, chief medical officer of the Community Health Services Division that oversees the busy jail medical-dental clinic and pharmacy, says not all causes of deaths are determinable. "Sometimes they are never explained," she says, adding that any death is immediately reviewed "to see if something could have been done to prevent it."

Of the 20 deaths since 1999, according to the jail chart, the cause of one, an unnamed inmate who died Dec. 30, 2003, in a hospital, is still listed as undetermined. That would be the case of Damian Henderson, 36, who died after the jail medical staff accidentally gave him a lethal dose of methadone. The medication was intended to ease chronic joint pain resulting from Henderson's sickle-cell anemia. Court documents show that the staff miscalculated the dosage, basing it on what a typical heroin user might be given to ease pain. Henderson did not use heroin. An autopsy determined the cause of death as an acute combination of methadone and a second drug used to control vomiting. In a May 2004 report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dr. Alonzo Plough, director of Public Health–Seattle & King County, which is responsible for jail health care, said the department was "deeply, deeply sorry this happened while he was under our care." Though the cause seems clear, jail officials would not explain why it is still listed as undetermined. A records officer in the county's Risk Management division says the county has not paid any legal claim or settlement in the case.

Bolton points out that "the jail population is dynamic, always changing," and that more than 50,000 accused and convicted citizens pass through the jail's doors yearly, from petty misdemeanants to psychotic murderers. Some inmates arrive, as Bolton puts it, "in a mess, healthwise." At least 15 percent of prisoners suffer from a mental illness, says Fotinos, the medical director. That situation is worsened by the near-epidemic aspects of methamphetamines, an addiction that disfigures the mind and body. "We're the biggest mental-health hospital in the state," says Fotinos. "In one way, anyway, that's positive. We've gotten quite good at recognizing mental-health issues in inmates."

The 1,700-inmate King County Jail in downtown Seattle.

(Marcy Sutton)

Custody and health issues are challenging enough, but the facility also has its own dysfunctional problems. They include an ongoing investigation into alleged sexual misconduct between male guards and female inmates and the continual turmoil at the top with revolving jail directors. Most recent was the forced resignation of corrections director Ken Ray in January, just four months after County Executive Ron Sims hired him as an "innovative leader" to replace a longtime interim corrections director. Sims has since appointed 29-year custody veteran Reed Holtgeerts to oversee the county's jail system, one of America's largest. The downtown jail that houses 1,700 costs about $36 million annually to operate, while the newer and more efficient 1,400-bed jail at the Regional Justice Center in Kent costs $23 million to run. Deputy Director Bolton notes the downtown facility was erected in 1986, and "they don't build them like this anymore." The main jail has an old-style layout and security systems. It nonetheless impressively passed an accreditation inspection by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care in February, and as Sims points out in a statement, "The bar that is set for accreditation is very high." Also a plus, Holtgeerts has the savvy of an insider to set things right, Bolton and others believe. Two jail officers, however, complain there was no heads-up notification to jail staff about the recent deaths, suggesting the jail tried to hush them up in the embarrassing wake of its sexual misconduct investigation. And a custody worker with inside knowledge of inmate health services says it's not as rosy as administrators might like to portray. "The situation at the jail has become so dangerous for anyone who is mentally ill, physically ill, or elderly," the worker says. "In fact, you stand a good chance of dying at the jail due to the new procedures they recently instituted because of remodeling and attempts to save money." Bolton maintains the

remodeling and updating will, in fact, create safer and more efficient conditions.

Attorney Susan Wilk wants to know if there will be changes in policy, as well as physical ones. Wilk, who handled Ron Hicks' unsuccessful appeal of a three-strikes conviction for the gas-station robbery, says her client should have been on suicide watch, as he had been previously. A week before his death, Hicks received word from the state Court of Appeals that he'd spend the rest of his life in prison. He could have already begun stashing his prescribed medicine or obtained illegal drugs in jail to do the deed. Hicks, who had earlier convictions for assault and second-degree rape, was found guilty in 2003 of a spontaneous holdup of an Issaquah gas station. He was arrested 200 yards away after running out of gas. At his December 2003 sentencing— to life, automatically, as a three-time loser—Hicks asked the court to kill him instead: "I don't want to wait till I'm old and bent over to die. . . . I did ask my counsels that if this happened, and I get struck out . . . if you could possibly impose the death penalty instead of having me wait to get killed. . . . I don't understand why people want to spend all their life in a little room, you know, their entire life in a little room. That is far worse than death. . . . Hook me up to something and let me go. Don't make me wait to die."

According to court papers and police reports, Hicks tried to commit suicide at least twice previously in jail, including the night after he asked the court to kill him. An attorney who handled his trial says Hicks was able to down as many as 150 antidepressant pills, which he apparently had hoarded in jail. The death attempt left him in a coma for several days, but he survived. Wilk, the appeal attorney, describes Hicks in court papers as severely mentally ill. He was, she said, third-youngest of 13 children raised in an abusive home. An African American, Hicks had a blacker skin color than his siblings, and that caused him to be singled out for abuse, said Wilk. He also suffered a brain injury as a youth that changed his behavior, along with the alcohol that Hicks' parents allowed their children to drink, court documents state. (Of Hicks' 12 siblings, 10 had mental-health or substance-abuse problems.) In and outside jail, Hicks was prescribed a variety of drugs, including the antidepressants Prozac and Celexa. He had been drinking for at least 12 hours when he robbed an Issaquah 76 station on New Year's Eve 2001, said Wilk. He intimated he had a gun—he was unarmed—and told the clerk: "I'm not going to hurt you. Don't push any buttons, just empty the till." He departed with $200, telling the clerk, "I know you have to call this in." His gasless car sputtered to a stop within a quarter-mile, and police arrived just as a good Samaritan in an SUV was trying to give Hicks a push.

Attorney Wilk unsuccessfully argued in her appeal that Hicks, who signed all his court papers with an X, suffered diminished capacity, lacking the requisite mental state to be convicted of the robbery. In a phone chat and e-mail exchange, she recalls visiting Hicks in his cell before the appeal ruling. "I was surprised," she says, "that he had been moved from the seventh floor, where inmates with mental-health and medications issues are housed, to the ninth floor general population. I believe that because of this move, the jail failed to appropriately monitor Mr. Hicks' medication supply, with the result that he was able once again to hoard his medications." Deputy corrections director Bolton said toxicology tests, due in a few weeks, ought to settle that question. He also makes a point of noting, as does Dr. Fotinos, that jail custody and health workers take it personally when a Ron Hicks or Sabrina Owens dies in their care. "The thing is," Bolton says as our elevator lumbers down to the jail's entry floor, within reach of welcome daylight and fresh air, "the suicide rate is exceptionally low. That's something you have to work at, and we do."

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