Implementing an expert’s recommendations for improving the operations of the Island County jail will come with a high price tag.
Many of the proposals in the report, however, were already implemented weeks or even months ago at a significant cost already borne by the county, according to Island County Sheriff Mark Brown.
Brown released the “Organization and Operations Review” to the public this week. He hired corrections consultant Phil Stanley, an experienced corrections facility manager, to conduct an unvarnished, “360 degree review” of the jail in response to 25-year-old Keaton Farris’ April 7 dehydration death in the jail.
Stanley had unfettered access and interviewed staff at all levels, inmates, prosecutors and many others, Brown said.
In the report, Stanley calls for increased staffing of corrections deputies and managers, as well as medical and mental health professionals. He wrote that increased and regular training is necessary, as is an updated and clear policy manual.
The problems, he noted, started at the top with leadership that hadn’t been progressive in dealing with the complexity of issues facing today’s jails.
“Old styles of jail management, providing a stark, ‘no questions asked’ setting is no longer acceptable,” Stanley wrote. “Attention to medical, mental health and environmental issues within a jail must be at the top of the list of priorities for a jail administrator. This has not been the case at the Island County Jail.”
Coupeville resident Fred Farris, Keaton Farris’ father, read the report and said it largely confirmed what he already knew. He points to a lack of leadership as the root cause of the problems.
“The sheriff seems to want to take the opportunity to use this as a political platform and to take credit for these changes, when in fact his lack of oversight at the jail contributed to my son Keaton’s death,” he wrote in a submitted letter to the editor.
“While reading the review by Mr. Phil Stanley, it’s clear that Island County Jail is lacking sufficient protocol, training, safety standards, jail staffing, medical staffing, inmate rehabilitation resources, nourishing food and appropriate equipment. Most of all what has been absent is responsible leadership, as we can logically assume, with it, these other short comings wouldn’t be so far below acceptable standards.”
Fred Farris and Keaton’s mother filed a wrongful death tort claim against the county in August, asking for unspecified damages and injunctive relief. It notes that Keaton Farris was obviously vulnerable from mental-health problems but wasn’t evaluated by medical or mental-health staff in a meaningful way, was deprived of water and was barely monitored by jail staff.
Fred Farris and supporters held a candlelight vigil Wednesday to mark the six-month anniversary of Keaton Farris’ death.
Brown said Wednesday that he and other managers started the process of reforming the jail after Farris died and especially after Detective Ed Wallace completed a report that outlined the catastrophic series of failures and oversights that led to the young man’s death.
Chris Garden, a long-time deputy and fire department captain, has been the interim jail administrator since the jail chief retired after Farris’ death. He sees the jail as a place where people can get the help they need and he’s focused on finding creative solutions to inherent challenges.
“I think, in general, people come out of jail better than they go in,” he said.
The Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office is currently conducting a review to determine whether any criminal charges related to Farris’ death are warranted. The FBI also is looking into the death.
When it comes to Stanley’s list of recommendations, those regarding medical and mental-health services in the jail have largely been implemented already.
Brown said his top priority for immediate changes was to improve the medical and mental-health services in the jail.
Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold explained that the board approved the sheriff’s request for a $300,000 a year contract with an advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP), who oversees two other nurses with advanced degrees, to provide medical services.
Yvette Esparza, the jail’s ARNP, said that she and her team provide a full range of medical services and are looking at ways to add efficiencies and improvements.
The care provided at the jail, she said, is now similar to what a patient would receive in a medical-surgical unit at a hospital.
Stanley recommends that corrections deputies no longer hand out medication to inmates, but Garden said there’s an exception in law specifically tailored to small jails which allows them to do so.
The jail also worked with Island County Human Services for mental-health services at the jail. A mental-health professional was recently hired for 20 hours a week; Stanley, however, recommended a full-time mental-health staff member.
The report calls for an increase of staff at leadership positions, specifically a permanent jail chief, two lieutenants and three sergeants. In addition, Stanley recommends six additional corrections deputies.
The jail wasn’t up to full staff level even before Farris died. Since then, the three top administrators at the jail below the sheriff — the undersheriff, the jail chief and the jail lieutenant — either resigned, retired or were terminated. In addition, two corrections deputies who allegedly forged jail logs quit.
Garden admits that remaining staffers have become weary from forced overtime, but he’s been working hard to fill the vacant positions and hired a series of provisional employees. Full staffing at the jail is currently 21 people, including the chief.
Stanley’s recommendations would put that number at 29.
Both Brown and Hannold say that the county can’t afford to implement all the recommendations in the 2016 budget.
Hannold, though, said he didn’t see any “glaring problems” in the jail report, but that the jail is the highest priority and a lot of resources will go to improvements there.
“I’m grateful to the other department heads who are aware of that when it comes to budget requests,” he said.
Brown plans to ask for the addition of three sergeant positions in the 2016 budget. In fact, Garden said the department is in the process of conducting “an assessment center” to determine which corrections deputies should be promoted.
Brown also hopes to get a new digital video system in the jail. Stanley’s report points to blind spots with the current cameras.
The sheriff said he doesn’t know yet what the additional costs will be for operating the jail, but they will be sizable. The sergeants’ salaries have to be negotiated with the guild.
Stanley wrote that the “paramount concern” from staff members was “the lack of policies and procedures.” While the jail had a policy manual, it wasn’t easily accessible or clear to employees. He recommended that jail officials and staff should work together to create a clearly defined policy and procedure manual and then there should be training on the policies.
Garden said he is not sure yet if he wants the job permanently, but he has strong opinions about what type of person the jail chief should be.
“It should be someone with fresh eyes,” he said, adding that the chief should be willing to ask questions and not just accept that things are always done a certain way.
Garden has come up with many creative solutions in dealing with a multitude of issues at the jail. He holds weekly meetings with medical and mental-health providers, which he said has been invaluable. He recently resolved a problem with a couple of inmates on hunger strikes with some creative negotiations. He worked with the hospital administration to lower medical bills for the jail and he has plans for a low-cost way to provide medication.
“He’s done a stellar job,” Brown said. “He came in and hit the ground running.”
At this point, Brown said he feels confident that important reforms have been made at the jail and that the institution is headed in the right direction.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he said. “We will continue to evaluate the new programs we’ve put in place and make what changes are necessary.”
He also pointed out that the report doesn’t address larger, structural concerns, such as the transference of inmates’ records between jails and statewide issues related to inmates with mental-health problems, that were addressed in Wallace’s report on the causes of Farris’ death.