Dead jail inmate’s parents: ‘No one ever alerted us’

COUPEVILLE — The parents of a man who died of dehydration in the Island County Jail are calling for changes to how people living with mental illness are treated in the criminal justice system.

Farris Keaton’s parents released a statement Friday, a day after Island County Sheriff Mark Brown provided them with a report detailing the investigation into their son’s April 7 death.

Keaton, 25, who had bipolar disorder, was housed at the Island County Jail for two weeks before dying of dehydration and malnutrition.

Records show that he received a fraction of the water he needed to survive. Corrections officers had shut off the water to his cell after he stuffed a pillow in his toilet. The investigation revealed that officers failed to regularly provide Keaton water or check on him, violating department policies.

“We have known since the moment we learned of Keaton’s death that the Island County Jail treated him with utter disregard. The investigation report released June 18 demonstrates worse — in his final days he was treated as subhuman,” his family said.

Farris, who grew up in Coupeville and on Lopez Island, is survived by his father, Fred Farris, mother Tiffany Ferrians and stepmother Susan Farris.

The family is planning a demonstration at 10 a.m. Sunday outside the jail. They have sold more than 200 T-shirts bearing a picture of Farris and one of his favorite quotes: “I see your hate and raise you one love.”

Brown apologized for the man’s death Thursday and blamed it on a “systematic breakdown” at the jail. Two corrections officers who falsified records after Keaton’s death have since resigned. The chief deputy in the jail was suspended Thursday for 30 days without pay, and a lieutenant was placed on leave.

Changes at the jail are under way and Brown also brought in an outside expert to make additional recommendations.

The Island County Board of Commissioners weighed in on Friday, saying the “best way of honoring Keaton and his family is to do everything possible to see that no other family has to endure what the Farris family is experiencing.”

The sheriff’s office investigation revealed that “there were multiple opportunities for intervention from the time he was arrested until his death. We are outraged and we are heartbroken. We are truly sorry for this tragic death,” the commissioners wrote.

Farris was arrested in Lynnwood March 20 for an outstanding warrant. He had failed to show up for an arraignment in San Juan County Superior Court. He was charged there with identity theft after he allegedly cashed a $355 check that didn’t belong to him.

He was moved from the Lynnwood City Jail to the lockups in Snohomish and Skagit counties before being booked into the jail in Coupeville on March 26. San Juan County doesn’t have a jail and contracts with Island County, which operates a 58-bed jail that was built in 1983.

The Island County sheriff’s investigation found that staff at all the jails were aware that Farris was in mental health crisis and his symptoms were becoming more severe. He often was unresponsive and was moved around in a restraint chair. He also tried to kick, bite and hit staff, according to the records. Detectives found that there were numerous requests for mental health evaluations.

“It’s clear from the report he was gravely disabled, yet no one ever alerted us to his physical condition,” his family said.

They repeatedly tried to see him.

“We were assured he was safe and in the best place to obtain the mental health care he needed. The trust we placed in these people will haunt us forever — every day of our lives that we now must live without this beautiful young man who we loved dearly,” they said.

Corrections officials across the country have said that their jails and prisons are not designed to treat inmates in mental health crisis or those undergoing drug or alcohol withdrawals.

Since public psychiatric hospitals closed and social services have been slashed city and county jails have become the de facto mental health and detox facilities in many communities.

“We are committed to justice for Keaton and change in the attitudes toward and treatment of people with mental illness in our ‘justice’ system,” his family said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley.

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