Inmate deaths prompt jail to hire doctor, more nurses

EVERETT — With an older, sicker and more drug-addicted population behind its walls, the Snohomish County Jail soon will hire a doctor to tend to inmates’ medical needs, Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said Tuesday.

It’s one of several changes the sheriff’s office has in the works to improve medical treatment in a jail where eight inmates have died since 2010. At least two of the deaths involve pending legal claims.

Hiring more nurses and mental health professionals, moving from paper to electronic medical records, and more closely screening inmates before they’re booked in to the jail also are part of Trenary’s plan.

In March, when County Executive John Lovick was still sheriff, he asked the National Institute of Corrections, a branch of the federal Department of Justice, to offer advice on operations and medical services at the jail. Experts from Miami’s Dade County in Florida and Nashville, Tenn., have visited the Snohomish County Jail and will return in September to complete their observations and make recommendations.

Shortly after being appointed sheriff in July, Trenary sought another perspective. He asked the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office to examine medical operations at the 1,200-bed jail in Everett. That county has been wrestling with similar jail challenges.

“Their concern is we didn’t have enough medical staffing,” Trenary said.

Now Trenary’s following many of the Pierce County team’s suggestions, including hiring a doctor to work inside the jail. As it stands, the jail has been covered by an often-understaffed team of registered and licensed practical nurses, with a doctor available via telephone if needed. At times, that has meant the jail has had nobody inside who is qualified to provide medical care.

Initially, the newly hired doctor would work at the jail three days a week beginning after Labor Day, but Trenary hopes to make it a full-time position in 2014. He also said the jail needs to add as many as 10 more nurses, but is waiting to see what the doctor recommends. Part of the plan is to raise pay for the jail’s nurses and phase out hiring from agencies providing temporary medical workers. It has been hard for the jail to keep qualified nurses, the sheriff said.

Adding a doctor, additional nurses and electronic medical records “will allow us to adequately care for inmates,” Trenary said. They also need to take a closer look at their system for distributing medications and for screening inmates for medical and mental health issues during the booking process, he said.

That would include being more selective about inmates they accept under contracts from other cities and out of county. The jail takes in about 115 inmates at any given time from cities and law enforcement agencies. That earns the jail about $3.5 million a year, but some inmates come with pricey medical conditions.

“The open sign can’t always be open for us,” Trenary said.

The sheriff said he does not know yet how much the extra staffing and other improvements might cost. The conversion to electronic medical records alone would be a roughly $900,000 investment.

Trenary said his office will try to be creative in finding ways to pay for the upgrades from within its existing budget.

“What we are trying very hard not to do is to just hold our hand out,” he said.

Jeff Miller, the newly appointed jail bureau chief, said a doctor overseeing the jail’s medical operations might save money in some areas, such as prescription drugs given to inmates.

“We think with a doctor it will reduce costs,” he said.

The jail also is considering other changes, including creating a team to conduct a “morbidity review” within 72 hours of an inmate death. The team, which would include medical professionals, would examine what went right or wrong with treatment. The review would not replace traditional criminal and internal investigations. Typically, there’s a death investigation done by the sheriff’s Major Crimes detectives and an internal review. If an inmate dies after officers use force, a team of homicide detectives from around the county takes the case, with prosecutors determining if any laws were broken.

Trenary also hopes to assemble a panel of people from within the community, including the mental health field, to provide advice on jail operations. He’s not worked out the details, but he hopes the panel would include defense attorneys, corrections professionals and even former inmates.

“A year from now, my goal is we’re on the right path,” he said.

The National Institute of Corrections also has made several preliminary recommendations to improve safety within the jail, including improving sanitation, testing food to make sure inmates get enough calories each day, and more closely following policies. The sheriff’s office requested the review last spring. The review team will return in September to examine medical conditions in the jail.

Their final report isn’t expected until later in the fall. It’s not an audit or an investigation that carries potentially binding recommendations.

The outside experts have found positive signs, including caring and committed workers, Miller said. The recent deaths have deeply troubled people working at the jail, where the safety of corrections workers and inmates is the top priority, he said.

The sheriff’s office request for federal help followed two high profile deaths involving inmates who were both in their 20s.

Lyndsey Elizabeth Lason, 27, suffocated at the jail in 2011 when her infected lungs slowly filled with fluid. Other inmates said Lason had pleaded for medical care. A $10 million wrongful death claim is pending.

Michael Saffioti, 22, died at the jail in July 2012 from bronchial asthma triggered by severe allergies. His family has hired a Seattle attorney to press for answers. He was booked into the county jail as a courtesy because people were concerned that his health would be at greater risk in the city of Lynnwood’s jail. A judge there had ordered Saffioti locked up for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

The family of Bill Williams, 59, also has raised questions about his death in September 2012. Arrested for shoplifting, the mentally ill man collapsed and died after being shocked twice with an electric stun gun.

The most recent death at the jail in July remains under investigation by the sheriff’s office and the county medical examiner’s office.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

Talk to us

More in Local News

Anastasia Allison poses with samples of her Kula Cloth, a pee cloth for women to use outdoors, near her home on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 in Arlington, Washington. Allison's invention has caught the eye of outdoor retail giant REI and will being selling them in stores soon. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Kula Cloth tries to wipe away the mountains of toilet paper

An Arlington woman’s “spiritual awakening via pee cloth” led to a popular product for outdoorsy women.

This series of screenshots taken from an iPhone with COVID-19 exposure notifications turned on for Washington state shows some of the information presented to iPhone users who are considering opting in to a new statewide coronavirus exposure notification program that was launched Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Washington state that uses smartphone technology in the ongoing effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People with Apple iPhones can now enable the 'exposure notifications' feature that is already in their phone's settings, and Android devices can download the app, called Washington Exposure Notifications. Use of the service is voluntary and users can opt out at any time. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington launches statewide COVID-19 notification app

Modeling predicted significant decreases in infections and deaths if at least 15% of people use the app.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson.
Snohomish County judge censured for profanity, reversed cases

It’s the third year in a row Judge Joseph Wilson has faced questions over his conduct on the bench.

A boat drives out of the Port of Everett Marina in front of Boxcar Park, which is one of the sites set to be elevated in preparation for rising sea levels on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
How the Port of Everett is preparing for a rising sea level

Big and little changes are in the works along the north Everett shore, though they are easy to overlook.

Visitors view photos of people who were killed by police in Washington State and elsewhere, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, inside what has been named the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone in Seattle. Police have pulled back from a part of the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood near the department's East Precinct after recent clashes with people protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Lawmakers, activists set ambitious agenda for police reform

The bills being drafted represent a broad overhaul of policing and police accountability in Washington.

One person hospitalized after Everett house fire

The person was taken to Harborview Medical Center after the Sperry Lane home caught fire.

View of trees at 5th Avenue S and Main Street in Edmonds. (City of Edmonds)
Edmonds council: Home developers, put down those chainsaws!

A new moratorium halts the subdivision of land that has more than eight trees per 10,000 square feet.

The Avenue A/Riverfront Gazebo decorated for the holidays on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020 in Snohomish, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The venerable Snohomish gazebo is in need of a remodel

The popular place for marriage proposals is in disrepair and is expected to be rebuilt in 2021.

Leslie Bringedahl grabs a bag containing books she and her husband Mark ordered after Circulation Manager Carol  puts them down on a wall during curbside pickup at the Everett Public Library on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 in Everett, Wa.(Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Everett council looks to fund fireworks, Jetty Island ferry

The Carl Gipson Senior Center and boosting library funding are also “quality of life” priorities.

Most Read