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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."

Mother Agonizes As Mentally Ill Inmates Continue To Languish In Washington Jails

Paige Browning
Spokane Public Radio
Evon Bercier says it was ''heartbreaking'' to see her 32-year-old son Shawn held in the Spokane County Jail while until a psychiatric bed at Eastern State Hospital was available. He had to wait nearly 60 days.

The state of Washington is under a federal court order to address the issue of mentally ill inmates languishing in jail. But the problem has actually gotten worse, not better.

It’s been nearly four months since federal judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle ruled that Washington is violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill jail inmates. The day before that ruling -- on April 1 -- Evon Bercier’s heartache began. That’s the day her 32-year-old son Shawn was locked up in the Spokane County Jail.

“Seeing him there, it’s just really hard,” Bercier said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

'Absolutely unacceptable'

Shawn is mentally ill. In fact, he ended up in jail for assaulting a staff member at the psychiatric hospital where he was being treated. The day after Shawn was arrested, Judge Pechman ruled the state of Washington must evaluate inmates like Shawn within seven days to see if they’re competent to stand trial.

But when a judge ordered a competency evaluation for Shawn, word came back from Eastern State Hospital that it would take two months to get him evaluated.

Shawn’s public defender, Kari Reardon, said that’s not in compliance with the law.

Ultimately, an outside evaluator was called in and on May 22, Shawn was found not competent to stand trial. Under Judge Pechman’s ruling, this started another seven day clock ticking -- this one to get Shawn a bed at Eastern State Hospital to begin to restore his competency.

But it would take nearly 60 days for that to happen. Shawn’s attorney has two words to describe this delay: “Absolutely unacceptable.”

Technically, Judge Pechman gave the state of Washington until next January to fully comply with the new seven-day standard. But she also appointed a court monitor to ensure the state is making progress. And she ordered Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services to file monthly status reports.

A challenging deadline

Those reports show that in April, only about 2 percent of competency evaluations in eastern Washington were completed within the seven day time frame. And in May that number got even worse. It dropped by about a third.

The percentage admitted to Eastern State Hospital within seven days also fell. Reardon cheered Judge Pechman’s ruling at the time, but finds these numbers dismaying.

“The only thing that has changed from my standpoint with my clients is that it is now taking even longer to get them into the hospital,” she said.

The numbers did improve slightly at Western State Hospital during those same months.

Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services said it’s not reasonable to expect to see wait times really start to improve until it gets new evaluators hired and more beds on line. The new state budget includes $40 million to hire 13 more evaluators and open 90 additional beds at Western and Eastern State Hospitals. But in April, the agency’s Jane Beyer warned lawmakers the court’s January deadline for hitting the seven day target was “very aggressive.”

“And I do not want to underestimate at all the difficulty of making the system changes that would be needed in order to be compliant with that seven day timeline,” Beyer said.

Beyer explained that it’s hard to recruit evaluators who meet the department’s current requirements. This is especially true in eastern Washington where only one recent applicant was willing to work there.

Another challenge: the state hospitals are old and re-opening mothballed wards is not as simple as flipping on the lights.

Unintended consequences?

The agency is appealing the part of Judge Pechman’s ruling that requires the initial evaluation to happen within seven days. Beyer told lawmakers in April that moving that quickly could have unintended consequences.

For instance, Beyer said, an inmate might seem mentally ill, but actually be on drugs. Seven days might not be long enough to recover from that psychosis and the evaluator might find them not competent.

“The fact that somebody who may not be mentally ill is being placed into a state psychiatric hospital is something that we have to be worried about because we have to protect the safety of the staff and the patients,” Beyer said.

Even as Beyer testified, across the state in Spokane, Bercier was watching her son Shawn deteriorate in jail.

“When I go to visit him he’s either crying, he’s scared,” she said. “Try to talk to him and he’ll just stare at the wall or he’ll just crack up laughing for no reason or he’ll get real angry.”

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."