Facing arrest, officials explain why mentally ill inmates languish

EVERETT — A Snohomish County judge has threatened to have state officials arrested if they don’t show up in her courtroom to explain why mentally ill inmates continue to wait weeks in jail for beds at the problem-plagued Western State Hospital.

Superior Court Judge Anita Farris last week ordered public defenders to subpoena Kevin Quigley, the secretary of the state Department Social and Health Services, and Dr. Barry Ward, a supervisor at the hospital. The judge demanded that they account for what they’re doing to increase capacity at the psychiatric hospital.

“I will put a warrant out for their arrest if they do not appear to answer these questions,” Farris said last week.

Public defender Tiffany Mecca said Thursday her office attempted to serve Quigley earlier this week but was told he was out of the state on vacation. She served Ward on Thursday morning and he was called to testify. Mecca also plans to subpoena others, including Ron Adler, Western’s chief executive officer.

The hospital is under a federal mandate to reduce wait times for mentally ill inmates. Western, which is overseen by DSHS, provides multiple mental health services. Staff there evaluate criminal defendants to determine if they are competent to assist with their own defense. They also provide inpatient treatment in an attempt to restore competency.

In response to a lawsuit that started in Snohomish County, U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman in April ordered Western to admit inmates within seven days of receiving court orders for evaluations and restoration treatment. She ruled that inmates’ civil rights routinely were violated as they languished in jails awaiting hospital beds. Pechman ordered the state to provide routine updates about their progress.

The state is challenging the seven-day requirement with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arguments were heard last week.

Western consistently fails to meet the one-week deadline. Wait times exceed a month or more, often leaving mentally ill inmates untreated. Hospital officials say a complicated set of circumstances make it difficult to recruit and maintain staff.

Legislators earlier this year appropriated $40 million to increase capacity at Western and meet Pechman’s mandate. More trouble surfaced, however, when federal inspectors concluded that the hospital didn’t have enough staff to safely oversee its current caseload, let alone increase capacity.

Quigley sent employees a letter in November, saying that he was pausing plans to open a new ward. The hospital risked losing federal funding because of safety concerns tied to understaffing. Quigley said in order to address those problems he had to focus on filling vacancies before opening up more beds.

In that same letter, Quigley apologized to staff “for not being firm enough and courageous enough with the courts.”

“The state and federal court systems continue to mandate we accept additional patients on their time lines, and that we — nearly instantly — open four new wards,” Quigley wrote.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday proposed additional funding for Western next year to hire more staff and meet safety requirements.

In Snohomish County, Farris demanded to know what Western and DSHS have done since November. She demanded to know how much more money taxpayers need to throw at the hospital. She said DSHS is in violation of state law and the U.S. Constitution. It appears that wait times have become longer since April’s ruling, Farris said.

“The taxpayers of the state of Washington want to know what you’re doing with our $40 million-plus dollars specifically,” Farris said last week.

She threatened to subpoena Quigley and others every week to update her on their progress.

“We must open new beds and you need to take steps immediately. The Legislature has made that clear, the federal courts have made that clear, and Western’s response is to put a pause on it,” Farris said.

She wondered why public defenders around the state haven’t joined forces to subpoena Quigley and others to answer for their lack of progress. She advised Mecca to serve subpoenas every week. She also scheduled weekly hearings through January on Mecca’s case.

In his declaration Ward suggested that counties could do more to help mentally ill inmates, such as have jails force medications on those waiting for a bed at the hospital.

Ward admitted it’s not “a perfect solution,” but said medication is the single most important component in the majority of cases in which inmates are waiting for mental health services.

Ward also said counties can release inmates from jails until a bed opens up for them.

“Only rarely have these options been utilized,” he wrote.

Farris reminded Ward that jails lack the authority to force medication on inmates living with mental illness absent court approval, and that involves support from state doctors.

Mecca had asked that her client be released from jail while waiting for admission to Western. He is charged with stalking his father. He also threatened to shoot up a high school, according to court records.

State psychologists found him unable to assist with his own defense.

He sat in his wheelchair Thursday, mumbling to himself and shouting at times. Another lawyer sat with him as Mecca grilled Ward. The hearing was recessed for three hours after the man became more agitated. He’s been in custody 77 days without substantial mental health treatment.

Farris asked Ward if he thought it would be responsible to release the man into the community in his current state. She didn’t wait for an answer.

A judge on Nov. 18 ordered the man, 23, sent to Western for restoration treatment. The psychiatric hospital estimates that there won’t be a bed available in its forensic unit until Jan. 11.

Farris has declined to release the man, citing significant safety concerns.

“I’m now being asked to violate the constitutional rights of this defendant because Western State Hospital can’t get off their behinds and use the money they’ve been given to do what they were supposed to do with it, despite now this being an issue with the Legislature probably for three years. They had to pass a law to get Western to ask them for money and then they were found to have violated the law,” she said last week.

Farris ordered Ward to return Dec. 31 despite objections by an assistant state attorney general. The lawyer argued that there are others at Western better equipped to answer the judge’s questions about any progress to cut wait times. The judge was told that Ward had plans to be out of the state.

The judge was unmoved and told Ward to be back in her courtroom Dec. 31.

“I’m taking the one I got,” Farris said.

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

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