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Thursday, November 22, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Justice Dept. lambastes county jail for abuses

Seattle Times staff reporter

Inmates in the King County Jail in Seattle suffer physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards and are not receiving adequate medical care, according to a scathing report by the U.S. Department of Justice, which concludes inmates' civil rights are routinely being violated.

The 27-page report contains a litany of instances of abuse and inadequate treatment so serious that earlier this year the Justice Department issued a letter alerting jail officials to "life-threatening" deficiencies in medical care for some inmates. At least two inmates have died from inadequate medical care and there have been three jail suicides in the past three years that were likely preventable, the report says.

Jail and health department officials say they are cooperating with the Justice Department but do not accept the report's conclusions.

The Justice Department says it will continue to work with the county but warned that if the county fails to resolve the issues, the department will file a lawsuit to force it to do so.

Almost every aspect of the jail's operation, from inmate intake to medical treatment to internal investigations, was criticized.

The report concluded that inmates have been physically and sexually abused by guards and that those instances were often poorly investigated, if at all. Ailing inmates are denied medications, misdiagnosed and sometimes left to suffer untreated, the report says.

It also says inmates are routinely pepper-sprayed, even when they are restrained or not violent. And, the report says, jail corrections officers use a painful, "degrading" and dangerous hair-pulling technique to control inmates.

"Inmates at [King County Correctional Facility] are routinely subjected to unnecessary uses of serious force," the Justice Department found.

The county released the report Wednesday, the day before the Justice Department was scheduled to post it on its Web site.

"We disagree that the constitutional rights of inmates are being violated," the county Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention said in a statement.

King County Executive Ron Sims, who has had the report since Nov. 13, was not available for comment. In a written statement, Sims said he is convinced the county runs a "constitutionally sound facility."

The Justice Department opened its investigation last spring, not long after the county ombudsman raised concerns about Jail Health Services and its two pharmacies, which had failed several state inspections. A Seattle Times investigation also revealed hundreds of medical errors, including the overdose death of one inmate and the death of another from an untreated infection by flesh-eating bacteria.

The Justice Department's investigation was broader and included looking at suicide prevention and inmate abuse. The investigation did not examine the jail at the Regional Justice Center in Kent nor the county's juvenile jail.

The report's findings include:

• Unnecessary and inappropriate use of force. It outlines a number of instances where the "hair-hold" technique was used against female inmates. In one, corrections officers used the hair-hold on a woman who was in arm and leg restraints in a wheelchair. The Justice Department investigator called that incident "inexplicable."

Overall, the Justice Department blamed inadequate training and a lack of clear use-of-force policies.

Jail Director Reed Holtgeerts defended the use of hair pulling but said it is falling out of use because fewer men have long hair nowadays. The use of pepper spray on uncooperative or violent inmates is justified and not abused, he said.

• Inadequate medical care. The Justice Department said it found "serious deficiencies" in virtually all areas of Jail Health Services' operation and found that health care in the jail falls "below the constitutionally required standards of care." It said emergency care is inadequate and inmates with acute and chronic illnesses suffer from delayed or denied treatment.

In the "most egregious" example, the report said, a desperately sick inmate died of a perforated ulcer after a series of jail health missteps that included his having to wait seven hours to see a doctor while in so much pain that he was "sweating and doubled-over." The jail's "inadequate diagnosis and inordinate delays" in treatment "likely contributed to the inmate's death," the report said.

The jail's efforts to control communicable diseases — especially the highly contagious and dangerous methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA — were also questioned. Investigators pointed out that a key component to preventing the disease is good hygiene but said inmates are given a single pair of underwear during their entire jail stay, which they are responsible for washing themselves.

Dr. David Fleming, the director of Public Health — Seattle & King County, the agency that oversees Jail Health Services, acknowledges problems in the system and said his agency is addressing them.

• Inadequate internal investigations. The Justice Department points to an "abnormally high" number of internal investigations into sexual and physical abuse. The report states that the investigations are often either inadequate or, in some cases, complaints aren't investigated at all. As of 2006, there were 25 sexual-abuse-related investigations involving jail staff.

Holtgeerts defended the internal-investigation unit and pointed to extensive investigations that resulted in the recent convictions of three guards for sexual misconduct.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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