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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."

Mentally Ill Languish In Washington Jails; Federal Trial Set To Begin

Thomas Hawk
Flickr -

Mentally ill inmates in Washington state often must wait weeks, or even months in jail for evaluations to see if they’re competent to stand trial.

Monday in Seattle, a class action lawsuit over the delays is scheduled to go to trial in federal court.

Earlier this year, a Spokane County judge found Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services in contempt for delayed competency evaluations and imposed $200 per day fines against the agency.

The state’s own records show that in eastern Washington average wait times for competency evaluations are 50 to 60 days. It’s much shorter in western Washington - 14 to 18 days. But even that exceeds the state’s own performance target of seven days.

In December, a federal judge in Seattle found the delays unconstitutional and said they “must stop.” She found that some inmates were defecating on themselves and resorting to self-harm.

‘We needed help’

Last September, a 26-year old man named Bryce had a psychotic episode at his parents’ house near Spokane. ‘’

“He’s threatening to kill himself,” recalled Bryce’s father, Barry. “Threatening to kill us. The threats continue and they become more and more vocal into a rage.”

Barry and his wife Nancy agreed to tell their story if we only used their first names. Finally, that evening the couple decided to call police.

“We needed help,” Nancy said.

Nancy said she was alone in a bedroom when Bryce came back into the house and said, “‘I just cut off dad’s head and now I’m going to do you.’”

She didn’t believe him because she couldn’t see any blood. But it was scary. Nancy escaped the house and called 911. Responding sheriff’s deputies subdued Bryce with a Taser and arrested him. He was booked in the Spokane County Jail for felony harassment.

“From there, the troubles really began,” Barry said.

Weeks in solitary confinement

Bryce would remain locked up in jail for the next five months -- much of that time in isolation. Eventually, a judge ordered an evaluation to see if Bryce was competent to stand trial. Seven days passed, then 14, then 30.

Finally, a state psychiatrist showed up at the jail to evaluate Bryce -- on the 43rd day.

“I think it’s very inappropriate,” said Bryce’s public defender, Kari Reardon. She said delays like this are all too common.

“It is a tragedy that we are letting people with mental health issues simply rot in jail,” Reardon said.

Barry said the weeks of solitary confinement took a toll.

“When I did see him, I was alarmed,” he said. “He was incoherent, he was rambling.”

A few weeks ago, a judge found Bryce not competent to stand trial. The charges against him were dropped. He was moved to Eastern State Hospital.

But doctors there determined he did not meet the criteria for involuntary treatment. Now, the charges have been reinstated and Bryce is once again locked up in the Spokane County jail.

‘A backlog of inmates waiting for treatment’

The state admits the wait times are “excessive and indefensible.”

Jane Beyer, an assistant secretary at Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, agreed current wait times are not acceptable.

“We do not think it is good practice for individuals to wait in jail for extended periods of time,” she said.

Beyer said in recent years her agency has been getting more and more requests from judges for competency evaluations. That’s created another backlog of inmates waiting for treatment to try to get them well enough to stand trial.

“During the time that this demand for service has gone up, our staffing and the number of beds at the state hospitals available to provide these services have remained unchanged,” Beyer said.

That’s about to change though. Lawmakers and the governor recently gave the agency money to hire three new competency evaluators and open up 15 additional hospital beds. At the same time, the governor has just signed a law that mandates a new 14-day standardfor DSHS to provide a competency evaluation to a jail inmate.

The federal trial in Seattle will determine whether that’s fast enough. Last December, the judge in the case said wait times beyond seven days are “suspect.”

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."