By Scott North
EVERETT — We told you last week that the federal government has agreed to review operations and medical services at the Snohomish County Jail, where at least seven inmates have died since 2010.
A public records request to the sheriff’s office fixed that. Attached is the March 21 letter that then-sheriff John Lovick sent seeking the review, which is planned for this summer, with most of the costs picked up by the feds.
Lovick, who on June 3 was appointed county executive, wrote that he’ll be particularly interested in findings about medical services at the jail.
“In conjunction with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office vision of being the best public safety agency in Washington State, the jail is charged with providing safe, secure, humane and cost effective detention services,” Lovick wrote. “It is my desire that Corrections has the policies, practices, staffing, medical services, and resources that it needs to adhere to those core values and standards.”
The sheriff’s office had been exploring an outside review of the jail’s operations for some time. Lovick’s letter was sent two days after Herald reporter Eric Stevick shared horrific allegations about the death of Lyndsey Elizabeth Lason. They were detailed in a $10 million wrongful death claim filed by Everett attorney Royce Ferguson on behalf of her family.
The Everett woman, 27, died in cell 13 at the jail in November 2011. She suffocated over a period of days as her chest filled with infection. Lason’s repeated requests for medical attention reportedly went ignored. Worse, there is reason to believe her condition could have been identified and her death prevented with basic medical care.
That’s the assessment of Carl Wigren, a respected former county forensic pathologist who was hired by Lason’s estate to review medical and jail records as well as a death investigation done by the sheriff’s office.
“The complacency of the medical staff and the corrections officers resulted in Lason’s death,” Wigren concluded.
In 2010, 918 people reportedly died in local jails around the U.S., according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That works out to 125 deaths per 100,000 inmates.
“The five leading causes of jail inmate deaths in 2010 were suicide (33 percent), heart disease (26 percent), drug or alcohol intoxication (six percent), cancer (four percent) and liver diseases (three percent). Among prisoner deaths from 2001 to 2010, cancer and heart disease together accounted for about half of all illness-related deaths each year,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The average daily inmate population at Snohomish County Jail is about 1,200.
The lone death we know of there in 2010 involved a man who reportedly succumbed to heart disease. In 2011, three deaths were reported: Lason; another woman who died of heart disease; and a man who committed suicide after a drug arrest.
July 2012 brought the death of Michael Saffioti, who was felled by bronchial asthma triggered by severe allergies that were known to jail staff. Saffioti, 22, was in jail for misdemeanor marijuana possession. His family has hired a Seattle attorney to press for answers. In September 2012, Bill Williams died after he was zapped with a taser while he reportedly fought with booking officers. Williams, who was arrested for allegedly shoplifting beer, had struggled for years with mental illness and other health problems. The use of force in that case is undergoing review by prosecutors.
The most recent death, in February, involved a 41-year-old man who died from a methamphetamine overdose. Suspicion is that he swallowed the drugs before being booked a couple days earlier, although an investigation is still ongoing.
The jail for years was the responsibility of the county executive’s office, but it was moved under the sheriff’s office in January 2009. The change came after repeated failures to meet overtime budgets and festering personnel problems. As sheriff, Lovick was credited by many with improving morale among corrections staff, but he had mixed results in reining in costs. In 2011, for example, inmate medical expenses pushed the jail $1.4 million over budget. Overtime expenses also have been rising again.