ACLU of Washington Sues to Remedy Inhumane Conditions at County Jail

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
February 26, 2002 12:00 am

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TACOMA, WA--The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a class-action lawsuit asking a federal court to order an immediate remedy to inhumane conditions at a local county jail, including lack of heat in winter, denial of medications as punishment, overflowing toilets and lack of basic hygiene products such as toilet paper.

"Conditions at the jail are so substandard that they constitute cruel and unusual punishment," said Julya Hampton, Legal Program Director of the ACLU of Washington. "Medical care and general conditions are so abysmal that inmates often have to go without toilet paper or feminine hygiene products. It's a sorry state of affairs."

An ACLU investigation of the Jefferson County Jail in Port Hadlock over a period of a year-and-a-half included interviews of current and former inmates and their attorneys, physicians and family members. A tour of the facilities revealed disturbing scenes of squalor and mistreatment, which led to the ACLU's decision to file a lawsuit.

The legal complaint filed in United States District Court by the ACLU and its National Prison Project detail the jail's deplorable conditions of confinement, including:

Plumbing: The physical plant and environment at the jail are inadequate, unsanitary, and pose a danger to inmates. The plumbing capacity is insufficient to handle the number of prisoners in the jail, leading to overflowing toilets and lack of access to showers. The drains in the floor of the housing area have backed up with overflowing sewage. Strong sewage odors permeate areas of the jail, particularly in summer.

Hygiene: Prisoners are not provided enough basic hygiene supplies, such as toilet paper and feminine hygiene products. Prisoners have been forced to use makeshift replacements, such as pages from telephone books, towels, or paper bags. Laundry is frequently not done, forcing prisoners to wear dirty clothes, sometimes for weeks.

Climate Control: Climate control is inadequate, often leading to extreme cold conditions in winter and extreme hot conditions in the summer. In some cells, prisoners can see their breath in the winter. The jail does not provide adequate blankets or cold-weather clothing.

Medical Care: The jail's health care program is disorganized and understaffed. Prisoners who request medical help are often not seen by the jail's visiting nurse, who comes only once a week. During the rest of the week, untrained jail staff make medical decisions for the prisoners. Jail staff frequently deny medication to prisoners altogether, often using the withholding of medication as threats or punishment. Prisoners with prescriptions are placed on lower dosages or different drugs at the discretion of untrained staff. As a result, inmates have suffered seizures and other serious medical problems that could have been avoided.

Access to Courts: The jail does not provide access to a law library, and legal mail is improperly handled. Jail staff often block access even to assigned counsel by, among other things, not permitting sufficient telephone access and failing to transport prisoners to court proceedings.

Access to Reading Materials: By jail policy, inmates are not permitted to receive subscriptions to newspapers or magazines, and are not permitted to order books.

Staffing: Inadequate staffing creates dangerous conditions, especially since the jail is overcrowded. Although the inmate population often has exceeded 60, there is usually only one corrections officer on duty.

In the 1990s, the ACLU of Washington successfully pursued litigation over substandard conditions at the King County Jail, Pierce County Jail, and Washington Corrections Center for Women at Purdy. Staff attorney Aaron Caplan of the ACLU of Washington and staff attorney David Fathi of the ACLU's National Prison Project are handling the case.

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