COUPEVILLE — The family of a man who died of dehydration and malnutrition in the Island County Jail has reached a $4 million settlement with three counties.
As part of the settlement, Island County has agreed that a corrections expert hired to evaluate the lockup’s operations will monitor the jail for the next 18 months. Phil Stanley made a series of recommendations in October to improve medical care for inmates, including more attention to those with mental illness and serious health conditions.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said several improvements have been made and more are under way, based on Stanley’s recommendations.
“The family acknowledges that Island County has taken measures and has promised more. We hope now that the civil part is over that we can even work together with them to ensure that it becomes a model jail and there is appropriate care for the humans housed there,” Fred Farris said Thursday.
His son, Keaton Farris, 25, was shuffled among three jails before being booked into the Coupeville lockup. He was in the throes of mental health crisis when he was taken into custody March 20 in Lynnwood. He missed court that day, and a San Juan County judge issued a $10,000 warrant. Farris was charged with identity theft for forging a $355 check in San Juan County.
He was housed in the jails in Snohomish and Skagit counties before being moved to Coupeville in Island County, which provides jail services under contract with San Juan County.
The settlement was reached Monday with Island, San Juan and Skagit counties. Fred Farris and Tiffany Ferrians filed a claim in August, alleging corrections officers neglected their son and withheld basic needs. They were represented by Seattle attorneys Becky Roe and Kathy Goater.
Farris was found dead in his cell around 12:40 a.m. April 8. Corrections officers hadn’t checked on him for hours, and the water to his cell had been turned off. The coroner estimated that Farris died around 7:30 p.m. on April 7.
The police investigation revealed that during the course of the 12 days in the Island County Jail, Farris’ fluid intake was at best 185 ounces of water — less than a quarter of the amount considered minimum for survival. He’d also lost about 20 pounds.
Under terms of the settlement, Island County also agreed that the family’s own expert will review the recommendations and work provided by Stanley, and the county will make a good faith effort to incorporate any suggestions.
The jail monitoring was a critical piece of the settlement, Fred Farris said. Family members didn’t want those efforts delayed by taking the case to trial. They also were concerned that a jury wouldn’t impose monitoring.
“We really feel like the review touched on how far behind the times and inadequate procedures there are at the jail,” Fred Farris said. “We’re concerned about the people who are in jail now and didn’t want to wait two years.”
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the county is investing $700,000 into the jail, including more corrections officers and medical staff. It also is looking into the national Stepping Up Initiative, aimed at preventing people living with mental illness from ending up in jail.
“I was heartbroken and outraged by what happened,” Price Johnson said. “I think we’ve worked very quickly with the sheriff to make improvements.”
Brown, who oversees the jail, said significant steps have been taken to remedy some of the problems that led to Farris’ death.
The county has hired a nurse practitioner and a new jail chief. There is now a mental health professional who works 20 hours a week in the jail. Corrections officers have received additional crisis intervention training aimed at helping them work with mentally ill inmates. Brown said there is more coordination between corrections staff, human services and the jail’s new nurse. They are meeting weekly to discuss inmates.
“Obviously we will continue to monitor the recommendations, and certainly the ones that were relevant in Keaton’s death are being addressed,” Brown said.
Sheriff’s detective Ed Wallace investigated the death. His 700-page report said that corrections officers didn’t regularly check on Farris or offer him water. They also failed to take any action when Farris repeatedly refused water. The family spoke with corrections staff and explained that Farris had bipolar disorder and likely needed his medication. When he was arrested in Lynnwood, he had a prescription in his pocket for an anti-anxiety medication. Farris never received any medication at the Island County Jail.
His parents were assured that Farris was being seen by a nurse. Corrections officers didn’t ask the jail nurse to evaluate Farris until the day before he died.
The nurse, Nancy Barker, admitted that she didn’t go into Farris’ cell or do an adequate medical screening. She said she had been told that Farris was dangerous. Barker resigned from her job in the middle of an investigation by her employer, Island County Public Health. The state Department of Health launched an investigation in July, about a week after it was contacted by The Herald about the status of Barker’s license. A department spokeswoman declined to say anything more about that investigation.
Wallace’s report documented that two corrections officers allegedly falsified records after Farris’ death. They resigned after being put on leave. Brown fired the jail lieutenant, and the jail chief retired.
The case remains under investigation by the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office for possible criminal charges against those involved.
“The family is holding on to hope that the criminal justice system will hold those individuals accountable for their role in Keaton’s death,” Fred Farris said.
He and his family will focus efforts now on the criminal case. They also will focus on remembering their son, brother, grandson and nephew.
Farris grew up on Lopez Island, where he helped bring home state championships in high school basketball and track. He’d been a storyteller since childhood and aspired to be a writer.
“Keaton’s great love lives through us in our hearts and through his writings and in the loving memories of his family, friends and community,” his parents said.