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'We've literally hit bottom:' Jails across Washington are overwhelmed by mentally ill inmates, sheriff says

The crisis stems from state-run psychiatric facilities that aren’t admitting people waiting for services in a timely manner.

GRAYS HARBOR COUNTY, Wash. — Newly retired Grays Harbor County Sheriff Rick Scott, who is also the past-president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said jails across the state are under extreme pressure with a record number of mentally ill inmates stuck in their facilities without treatment.

The crisis stems from state-run psychiatric facilities that aren’t admitting people waiting for services in jails in a timely manner as outlined by state law and court orders.

“We’ve literally hit rock bottom,” Scott said. “There isn’t a jail in the state of Washington from King County to Asotin County - the smallest - that was set up or designed to be a psychiatric facility. Now every jail in the state of Washington has become an ad-hoc psychiatric facility.”

At the Grays Harbor County Jail, located in Montesano on the Olympic Peninsula, approximately 20-30% of the jail population is made up of inmates who are supposed to be receiving care from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The state agency is legally responsible for providing what’s called competency restoration services in a hospital setting when a judge finds a defendant is so mentally ill they cannot understand the charges against them.

Space is tight at the Grays Harbor jail

KING 5 reporters toured the facility and were shown the medical ward that’s the size of a closet. There are no mental health professionals on staff. There is not enough staff to safely deal with a crisis. Some inmates waiting for competency services are extremely violent and require three to four staff members to handle them outside of their cells. But that’s the typical number of staff on a shift for the entire jail.

“That really poses an officer safety risk,” Scott said. “It’s extremely stressful. You see it in sick leave usage, you see it with interactions that they have with other staff and inmates. It’s extremely stressful. It’s a huge, huge labor-intensive drain on all the resources within our organization.”

The number of people waiting for competency restoration services in Washington has skyrocketed. Currently, about 870 people are waiting for a competency restoration bed at Western and Eastern State Hospitals, compared with approximately 350 defendants who were waiting at the end of 2021, according to DSHS leaders.

Federal and superior court orders, as well as state law, mandate that DSHS is to transport inmates found incompetent to a state facility, such as Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, within seven days of the order. Currently, some people are waiting ten months and longer for a bed at Western State.

State officials blame the backlog on an unprecedented increase in demand, stalled admissions due to COVID-19 and lack of staff.

“You can’t just sprinkle fertilizer and a psychologist pops up or a psychiatrist,” said Gov. Jay Inslee last week following an event to open a state-of-the-art 16-bed facility in Centralia that should help alleviate the log jam at Western State. “We’re doing everything possible to relieve that (waiting list) by building new capacity as fast as humanly possible.”

Superior court judges are ‘frustrated’ and issuing sanctions

In response to the record wait times, a growing number of superior court judges are issuing sanctions against DSHS for being in contempt of court orders to transport mentally ill defendants to a state facility within seven days. 

In the last year-and-a-half, judges in Grays Harbor County have sanctioned DSHS $500 per day for every defendant left in jail beyond the timeline outlined in the court’s orders.

“The problem started to get worse and worse so that’s when we decided to take action,” said David Mistachkin, Grays Harbor Superior Court Judge. “We’re all frustrated and we’re all motivated by the same thing. Our hope is that these sanctions would motivate (DSHS) and obviously the state to fix the issue.”

The total so far in Grays Harbor County is approximately $1 million, according to county officials. Half of the money is being paid to the sheriff’s office to help pay for jail operations, and the other half is going to the defendants themselves for the violation of their civil rights.

It’s against the law to leave a person with a disability in jail without treatment. It’s also unconstitutional to keep a person in jail without their legal proceedings moving forward. In these cases, there’s no treatment, no trial, and no clear date on when they’ll receive services to help them participate in their defense.

“For the defendants, that’s serious," Mistachkin said. "They’re being held without a trial. The criminal proceedings are stayed, so they’re not going anywhere. They’re just kind of sitting, stuck. How do you put a price on that? If you’re being detained for months against your due process rights, what should the compensation be?”

Fines are piling up against DSHS in courts across the state. In addition to Grays Harbor, records show judges have issued sanctions in counties including Cowlitz, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Whatcom, King and Pierce.

In Pierce, the county successfully filed two separate motions in September asking the court to issue sanctions for failure to provide restoration services beyond the seven-day timeline. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Joseph Evans found DSHS in contempt and ordered sanctions of $300 per day, per inmate. Part of the money is to support jail operations and another portion would most likely be used to serve the mentally ill population in the county.

The total so far in Pierce County is approximately $3.5 million, according to county officials, but the sanctions are under appeal by DSHS.

In King County judges have issued sanctions of $250 per day for dozens of defendants waiting for months without help. As per court orders, the money is to be entrusted to a responsible party to support the defendant’s housing and mental health needs. The total issued in King County so far is unclear.

The money being paid to counties and defendants is separate from the contempt sanctions against DSHS leveled by a federal court judge in what's called the Trueblood case. In that case, filed in 2014, fines for not transporting mentally ill defendants to a state hospital in a timely manner now total $366 million, with $98 million paid so far. The remainder is in abeyance and could come due if DSHS is found in "material breach" of a 2018 settlement agreement.

One of the King County defendants accruing compensatory sanctions is Alexander Jay, charged with brutally attacking a Harborview nurse at a Seattle Light Rail station in March. He’s also charged with stabbing a woman waiting at a bus stop and murdering a man on Seattle’s Capitol Hill with a piece of rebar. In April, a judge ordered Jay to receive treatment at Western State Hospital within seven days to become stable enough to participate in his defense. Ten months later, he’s still waiting for a bed. The fines due him have grown to $75,000.

State officials: Counties are ‘part of the problem’

Inslee and DSHS officials said they can’t shoulder all the blame for the crisis in local jails. In legal documents filed last month in the Trueblood case, DSHS leaders said counties are “ignoring their own role” in creating the demand by sending an “incessant stream” of orders for services at Western State Hospital to get people mentally stable for trial.

“Just getting ready for trial doesn’t solve the problem," Inslee said. "It doesn’t reduce crime if the person comes out of jail and they still have mental health problems. We need counties to be more interested in solving the problem, which is mental health, rather than just be focused on putting people in jail.”

In January, the Governor’s Office offered legislation, now sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) that would shift some competency restoration services from the state to the counties. People charged with misdemeanors or class C (lower level) felonies, would no longer be transported to a state facility for treatment, but instead would be the responsibility of the counties.

“Now we have a proposal to get the counties to alleviate the front end of the pipeline," Inslee said. "You have this fire hose coming at the state. We need to reduce the number of folks coming into the system and I believe we can if we focus more on mental health. We need everybody on the team including judges and prosecutors and police officers. If we focus more on (mental health treatment services) we’re going to reduce crime overall by getting to the heart of this problem.”

Counties are resisting the potential change in public policy.

“Rather than building out the state’s current system to respond to the federal court ruling and settlement, it appears that the state, through the governor’s proposed legislation, is throwing its hands in the air and directing counties to solve what it could not, yet is obligated to do,” wrote policy director Juliana Roe on the Washington State Association of Counties website. “(The bill) intentionally shifts this responsibility, and liability, to counties without providing counties funding to accomplish something the state has been unable to address since at least 2018, if not 2015.”

Those running jails said they need help now, especially in smaller counties, where they’ve reached the tipping point.

“I’ve been doing this for over 45 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. We can’t continue to go the way we’re going,” Scott said. 

Watch: Residential treatment facility for mentally ill defendants opens

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