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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Former Jail Inmate Describes Isolation, Despair While Awaiting Mental Evaluation

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Brian Phillips sits on the deck in the backyard of his mother's house in Lacey, Washington. This summer he was jailed after going off his psychiatric medicine and having run-ins with police. He was held for 71 days in isolation.

Brian Phillips spent 71 days in solitary confinement this summer. He was locked up in the Thurston County Jail near Olympia, Washington, after he went off his psychiatric medication and had several run-ins with police.

Phillips, 22, has a reddish chinstrap beard, wavy hair and the build of a former high school football player -- which he is. In fact, a football-related brain injury is what doctors say explains his mental health challenges.

Like a lot of inmates in his situation, Phillips had to wait weeks for a mental health evaluation. While he waited, the isolation took a toll.

'I didn’t think I was going to be there that long'

His time in jail began when he was booked on June 25.

“I was actually taking it pretty light-hearted because I didn’t think I was going to be there that long,” Phillips said.

But Phillips said his outlook quickly changed when he was placed in administrative segregation -- locked down 23 hours a day.

The jail’s commander wouldn’t discuss Phillips’ case specifically, citing confidentiality, but he said inmates with mental health issues who appear volatile or aggressive are often put in isolation -- at least initially.

Within hours of being jailed, Phillips flooded his cell. They shut off his water. That made him angry so he told the staff he was suicidal, even though he wasn’t.

“Whenever you say ‘I’m suicidal,’ even if you go right back and take that statement back, they still have to take you,” Phillips said.

Phillips said he was placed in a restraint chair to be moved to a suicide-watch cell. The jail’s commander said the restraint chair is used on a “limited basis” when an inmate presents an imminent threat.

After that, Phillips said they shackled his leg to the floor and put his hands in three sets of daisy-chained handcuffs. In anger, he broke the locks on one of the sets of handcuffs. He then brandished the pointed ends of the cuffs like weapons.

“They stacked up outside the cell and they opened it and they repeatedly told me to drop the weapon,” Phillips recalled.

He didn’t. So they tased him. When he didn’t go down, he said the deputies took him to the ground.

“They had their boots in my back and a couple on my head to keep me from moving.”

Twenty-three hours a day in lockdown

Phillips said none of this would have happened if he’d been on his medication. When he’s off it, he gets in trouble. That’s what landed him in jail in the first place. He had destroyed a car at his former high school two years earlier.

Staying on medication was a condition of his release. After the tasing incident, Phillips was put on suicide watch and then, when he was cleared, returned to administrative segregation.

What did he do for 23 hours a day in lockdown?

“I’d try to sleep as much as I could,” Phillips said. “And when I had a book I’d read as much as I could. And also just think.”

His one hour a day out sometimes came in the middle of the night. At first he was handcuffed during that time.

“I was handcuffed while I was showering,” Phillips said. “I was handcuffed after the shower while I was trying to get my clothes on.”

'It just didn’t seem like it was ever going to end'

On the outside, Phillips’ case was moving slowly. First there was a change in lawyers. Then it took nearly a month before a mental health evaluation was ordered to see if he was competent to stand trial.

In April, a federal judge in Seattle ruled long wait times for mentally ill jail inmates are unconstitutional. And the state is working to address the backlog.

As the days passed, the conditions took a toll. Phillips said at one point he did become suicidal.

“It just didn’t seem like it was ever going to end,” he said. “And in my opinion it would have been more humane for me to just die.”

He started thinking about ways to kill himself.

“You know bashing my head against the wall as hard as I could as many times as I could,” Phillips said.

Or, he thought, he could fight his jailers to the death.

“Planned to resist to the point where they would have to do something drastic to where it would eventually lead to my death,” he said.

“Generally speaking being in isolation is very damaging, especially for inmates who have mental health issues,” said Kimberly Mosolf, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington.

Mosolf said county jails commonly use solitary confinement to manage mentally ill inmates who pose a threat to themselves or others.

“From the correctional standpoint, that problem is solved,” she said. “From a human rights, legal rights, social conscience perspective that problem is not solved at all.”

An 'incompetent' system

In Phillips’ case, he was put back on suicide watch. He actually credited the jail staff for helping him through that period. He said they would talk with him about the love and support he had from family on the outside. He called them “amazing people” and acknowledges he wasn’t the easiest inmate to deal with.

But he’s withering in his evaluation of the intersection of criminal justice and mental health.

“It’s amazing how incompetent the system is,” Phillips said.

A state forensic evaluator finally came to see Phillips on his 53rd day in jail. By then he had voluntarily resumed taking his medication. When the evaluation came back a week later, he was deemed competent to stand trial.

On the Friday before Labor Day, the prosecutor agreed to Phillips’ conditional release from jail. By then, he’d been locked up for 71 days.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."