Pierce County inmates with mental illness denied care, illegally restrained, ACLU suit says

Pierce County Jail inmates with mental illnesses are denied basic treatment and illegally restrained, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged this week in a class action.

The ACLU of Washington filed the lawsuit against Pierce County on Monday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, on behalf of inmates Donald Bango and Scott Bailey.

The group argues Pierce County inmates are improperly screened for mental health issues, see delays in getting their medications, wait months to see a mental health provider in person and that their mental illnesses worsen as a result.

“Pierce County then punishes people experiencing mental health crises by placing them in solitary confinement, using eyebolts to chain their legs and arms to the concrete floor, and leaving them in restraint chairs for hours on end,” the ACLU said in a statement.

“Pierce County perpetuates this vicious cycle by releasing people directly into the community without a supply of their psychiatric medications. Due to their untreated illnesses, many will end up back at the jail.”

County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich said in a statement Tuesday: “Although we can’t comment on the specifics of this pending litigation, Pierce County has made significant investments in the behavioral health needs of our community this year, including individuals in the jail. It will continue to be a high priority going forward.”

She pointed to a $1.9 million grant the county was awarded by the U.S. District Court. It takes effect in March and will fund mental health professionals and other resources for people in the local criminal justice system who have behavioral health conditions.

In addition to the county, the lawsuit names County Executive Bruce Dammeier, Sheriff Paul Pastor, Chief of Corrections Patti Jackson-Kidder and jail mental health manager Janet Rhoton.

Bango was arrested in December 2015 for fatally shooting 33-year-old Jeffrey Shaw. Prosecutors said he killed Shaw while trying to rob him as he was selling Bango heroin.

A jury convicted the 40-year-old of second-degree murder in June, and he’s awaiting sentencing at the jail.

Bailey, 45, is awaiting sentencing at the jail for drug possession.

Pierce County violated their constitutional rights, such as those against cruel and unusual punishment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, the lawsuit alleges.

It gives this account of their experiences at the jail:

In Bango’s case, he told an emergency medical technician during the booking process that he had been diagnosed with mental illnesses, and got counseling and medicine from Veteran’s Affairs.

The jail didn’t try to confirm that by requesting his medical records.

During his 15 years in the U.S. military, Bango did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, among other mental illnesses.

He was put in solitary confinement shortly after he was booked into the jail, for a suicide watch. His clothing was taken, and he was put in a suicide smock.

Several days later, he used the smock to break a sprinkler, which flooded the cell.

Jail deputies tackled him, handcuffed him behind his back, pepper sprayed him and left him naked in a neighboring cell for several hours.

“During those hours that he was restrained in the cell, Mr. Bango felt he was in the worst place he had ever been in his life and wanted to die,” the lawsuit states.

He later was put with the jail’s general population, and a week after he was booked into the jail asked for his psychiatric medications.

He was denied a mental health appointment, and a week later requested his medications again. He again was denied an appointment, and told his medication didn’t appear to be current. VA records show he did have active prescriptions.

He kept periodically requesting his medication, and at one point wrote in a request that he was “trying to use the appropriate channels.”

A mental health provider responded by saying his request had been answered, and told him to stop asking.

After Bango filed a grievance in August a psychiatric nurse practitioner prescribed him medication. Nevertheless, he has continued to have hallucinations, such as being tracked by satellites.

He thinks he might be taking the wrong combination of medications.

Bailey also ended up filling a grievance before he was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety.

In an appeal, he wrote: “A schedule of regular treatment needs to be made available to all who need it. Not to those select few who complaint the loudest.”

He remembers telling a nurse when he was booked into jail in April about medications he’d taken before for his mental health. His booking form didn’t note any previous treatment for mental illness.

He asked to see a mental health provider for depression several weeks later, but instead was given mental health worksheets, with information about sleep and exercise.

He was prescribed medication in June, and has had no follow-up appointments since then.

He’s been incarcerated at the jail eight times since 1999, and the jail has “routinely failed to adequately screen Mr. Bailey’s mental health conditions, mental health history, or use of psychiatric medications,” the ACLU said in its statement.

The jail also “failed to provide him with timely access to basic mental health services, despite his repeated request,” the ACLU said.

It’s not the first time the ACLU has sued Pierce County for allegedly inadequate mental health care at the jail.

It and other groups sued in 1995, and as part of the settlement the county was required to create a mental health unit and implement mental health training, among other changes.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell