More than 250 people in black shirts, many holding signs, quietly marched through Coupeville on Sunday to the Island County Jail, where they held hands and formed a human chain encircling the facility.
There, the protest grew in volume as people called out for justice and passing motorists honked in solidarity.
Coupeville resident Fred Farris led the procession of mourners who gathered to protest the death of his son, 25-year-old Keaton Farris.
The young man was suffering from mental health issues and died in jail from dehydration in April. The protest was spurred by Detective Ed Wallace’s report on the tragedy, which was released last week. It described how the jailers’ failure to follow basic policies led to the death.
The fallout from and reaction to the report continued even prior to the protest. After reading the report, Island County Public Health Director Keith Higman placed nurse Nancy Barker on paid administrative leave last week pending an investigation. Barker is a registered nurse who worked at the jail.
The report states that Farris arrived at the facility while Barker was on vacation, so she didn’t see him until jailers asked her to on April 6, the day before Farris died.
Farris told her through a slot in the cell door that he needed to see a medical professional and that he was “not good,” but she didn’t ask to examine him and didn’t alert staff to any concerns about his health, the report states.
The nurse serves under the guidance of the chief medical officer at the jail, a physician assistant who works under a physician, according to Undersheriff Kelly Mauck.
He said the jail currently has two nurses from Public Health working in the jail. In addition, the sheriff’s office is working with the county’s Human Services department to provide mental-health care in the jail in the future.
Sheriff Mark Brown has chosen an outside expert to do a comprehensive examination of the jail’s policies and procedures. Phil Stanley is a former Chelan County jail administrator with decades of experience in running jails.
The commissioners would have to approve a contract with Stanley before he can start work.
Yet many of the protesters on Sunday, including Fred Farris, said the problems are too great and that the jail should be shut down.
“This was for everyone,” he said of the protest. “It’s not just about me and it’s not just about Keaton.”
“This is just the first step,” he added.
Some called on the sheriff, who’s ultimately responsible for the jail, to resign. Others urged the prosecutor to charge everyone who failed in their responsibilities.
The signs held by the protesters summed up their outrage and grief.
“He died thirsty.” “Never again.” “Abolish solitary.” “No killer cops in our community.”
“Serve and protect. Not arrest and neglect.”
Hawk Arps provide a poignant rhythm for the marchers with a handheld drum. He said he was trying to keep Keaton Farris’ heartbeat alive.
“He had a really strong vision of love and that’s what we are trying to share,” he said.
Like many others at the protest, Keaton Farris’ mother, Tiffany, traveled from Lopez Island to take part. She said she is still struggling to understand how such an unnecessary tragedy could have happened. She said she doesn’t know how she could have survived without such a supportive community.
“He was the light in my life,” she said. “He taught me more about love than anybody. He is still teaching me.”
Heather Arps is a nurse who’s known Keaton Farris his entire life. She said she knows firsthand how some patients can be difficult, but they still need medical help.
“This is absolutely the grossest form of neglect I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” she said.
Tanissa Lavigne and her two brothers were among those who traveled from Lopez Island. She said Keaton Farris was her first friend when she moved to the island 10 years ago; she remembers him as creative, hilarious, brave. She said he was a sensitive soul tortured by how screwed up the world can be.
“I want to see people go to jail for this,” she said, fighting back tears.
“This was murder.”
Brown released a statement following the protest. He said he shares the family’s anger and grief.
“I believe the best way of honoring Keaton and his family is to do everything possible to see that no other family has to endure what the Farris family is experiencing. I am truly sorry for this tragic death,” he wrote.
“Changes are already being made to ensure that every inmate is safe and inmate medical needs are properly addressed.”
Sheriff Brown was working in the jail while the protesters were outside its doors. A couple of them asked to come in and he obliged them, accepting a bottle of water featuring Keaton Farris’ image and showing them the jail.
He said they also shared a few tears.