Health Behind Bars

With questions about inmate care, the King County Health Board plans to visit the jail.

The King County Board of Health meeting was breezing right along for jail officials the other day. They rattled off inmate-death statistics that, according to the county's detention director, Reed Holtgeerts, show "we are doing a very good job." Jail Health Services director Bette Pine and medical director Ben Sanders outlined rigorous health care procedures in a PowerPoint presentation. Board members, with few questions, subsequently joined in a chorus to commend the trio. As board and King County Council member Kathy Lambert put it, "You've done an incredible job," noting that she, personally, is always greeted warmly when she visits the lockup.

Then board member Tom Rasmussen dropped a little something into the punch bowl. "Well, I think we need more information," said the Seattle City Council member. "This was really focused on jail deaths, but we really haven't had a full briefing on jail health procedures." It may require possibly two more full hearings to really understand the downtown jail's problems, Rasmussen said. He also wants a thorough tour of the jail for board members.

And apparently he'll get it. At the end of the Dec. 9 board meeting, Chair Carolyn Edmonds agreed to put additional jail-health hearings and a jail tour on the calendar for early 2006. Edmonds, a County Council member, also asked Pine, at Rasmussen's request, to provide the council with copies of a report they've never seen, a year-old outside review of the jail's psychiatric services. Rasmussen says the report is "very critical" of jail procedures.

In his presentation, Sanders mentioned the 2004 death of an inmate from flesh-eating disease—calling it "a good example" of the kind of pre-existing conditions prisoners bring to jail. However, the family of the inmate, Patrick Harrington, believes he did not have the condition prior to his incarceration a few days earlier and was not treated in time. (See "Contagion in the Jail," Dec. 7.) When Rasmussen asked the three officials how long an inmate might go without a reliable health assessment, a health department employee got up from the audience to say it usually takes 10 days.

Sanders noted that one of the jail's achievements was that "all the phone cords in the facility were shortened" to prevent use of cords by suicidal inmates. He was not asked about the inmate who this year hanged herself with a 6-foot television electrical cord.

Three inmates died at the downtown jail in 2000–02, while 13 died from 2003 through July of this year—despite a jail population decline. The population now is rising, to a cumulative total of 55,000 inmates this year, Holtgeerts said—60 percent of whom are released in 72 hours. He and the others vowed to be vigilant about inmate care and treatment. "The health of our jail inmates," said Pine, "is taken very seriously."

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