Island County Jail personnel found one of their inmates, 25-year-old Keaton Farris of Lopez Island, dead on April 8. According to the investigative report, Island County Jail personnel had taken custody of Farris on March 26, as a transfer from the Skagit County Jail.
The course of events leading to Farris’ death were outlined in detail in an internal investigative report. But while possible solutions are introduced, what is clear is that more oversight and citizen input is required.
During the two weeks Farris was in custody at Island County Jail, he apparently presented quite a challenge for jail personnel, repeatedly removing his clothing and blocking the toilet facilities in his cell, causing flooding.
Because the flooding represented both health and safety challenges for jail personnel, Farris, and other inmates, jail personnel turned off the water to Farris’ cell. Farris reportedly died, at least in part, from dehydration.
By all accounts, Farris was a very troubled person, suffering from all sorts of physical, mental, and/or emotional challenges. He was reportedly taking an anti-anxiety prescription medication called lorazepam.
It would appear as if Farris’ challenges were noted (and documented) by law enforcement personnel from the moment he was initially taken into custody by Lynwood PD on March 20. When, during the initial contact, Lynwood officers asked Farris what he was doing, Farris said that he had been “projecting (his) thoughts” at people in a nearby bank and also told them that he was “off (his) meds” and “feeling pretty anxious.”
At Farris’ next stop, the Snohomish County Jail (SnoCJ), he was placed in an Observational Unit due to his “mental status.” SnoCJ personnel also documented the opinion that Farris was “gravely disabled” and “presented symptoms consistent with psychosis.” At SnoCJ, a mental health professional named Hoover observed Farris for 30 minutes and cleared him for transport to Skagit County on the “Cooperative Transport.”
When Farris arrived at Skagit County Jail (SkaCJ), he was uncommunicative and in a “restraint chair,” and the transport personnel told SkaCJ personnel that Farris had been “Tasered” the previous day at SnoCJ. When SkaCJ personnel tried to prepare Farris for transport to Island County, Farris actively resisted and tried to bite one of the deputies.
Farris was eventually moved to Island County Jail (ICJ) by San Juan County Deputies (Farris’ felony arrest warrant had been issued in San Juan County). Farris reportedly actively resisted these deputies, trying to kick one of them.
Upon receipt, ICJ staff immediately placed Farris in a “blue padded cell.” Between his arrival at ICJ and his death there, there are numerous documented reports of Farris behaving both uncooperatively and violently, stuffing bedding materials and food into his toilet and some sort of cloth in his own mouth.
On April 6, a doctor from Western State Hospital, named Hendrickson, tried to interview Farris for a court-ordered competency hearing. The doctor described Farris as laying “naked on the floor of his cell, talking continuously to himself, as if he were speaking to a person in the cell.”
ICJ Det. Wallace would later report that on April 7, the day before Farris was found dead, there were “multiple gaps where the hourly checks were not being conducted and several documented checks were determined not to have been done.”
There are also indications that the water which jail personnel provided Farris was far below the amount recommended by either FEMA or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates, although, to be fair, Wallace points out, that it is difficult to accurately calculate the amount of water Farris actually consumed, for several reasons. There are notes that Farris spilled some of the water he was provided and there was also a period during which jail personnel restored the water service in his cell. Farris’ water intake could not possibly be monitored or accurately quantified during that period.
Wallace’s report makes it clear that there were procedures in place — in all jurisdictions involved — to observe, document, and take action on inmates experiencing emotional or mental health challenges.
In some cases, those procedures were followed, and in other cases, it appears, they were not.
It struck me that mental health professionals observed and documented significant challenges with Farris on at least two occasions but that, despite their concerns, Farris was never transferred to a facility that might have been better-equipped to monitor and provide effective (if secure) medical care for people with these sorts of issues.
A padded cell is all well and good, but if an inmate like Farris is not made to take the drugs he has been prescribed, his mental or emotional condition is only going to degrade.
Similarly, providing an inmate like Farris with cups of water is all well and good, but if no one is making sure that he actually consumes it and stays hydrated, no amount of provided cups is going to suffice.
Many jurisdictions around the nation maintain secure “custody wards” in their county hospitals. These counties staff them with custody personnel as in any jail, but also with medical and mental health personnel to deal directly with those, like Farris, who are experiencing significant challenges in these areas.
In such a guarded medical facility, medical professionals can make sure inmates like Farris take their needed medication and can keep them sedated and fed and hydrated intravenously if that’s what it takes to ensure their physical well-being.
The cost to maintain such a facility can be great, but what is the inevitable wrongful death suit going to cost Island County and its taxpayers? It is reasonable to expect that settlement or award will be considerable, and it probably should be.
Still, no improved facilities are going to help if they do not exist, and no procedures are going to help if they are not followed. Island County Sheriff Mark Brown has already acknowledged what he called “systemic failures” that contributed to Farris’ tragic death. He has detailed numerous reforms he has already undertaken to correct those failures within his control, and we have no reason to doubt he is doing all he can.
As for any consequences, as of this writing, the jail chief has retired, the second-in-command supervisor was fired and two corrections deputies who falsified logs have quit.
Such are the administrative consequences to date. Whether anyone will be charged with any criminal violations is yet to be determined, though Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks is reviewing the case.
One final suggestion that may help Brown restore, maintain and improve public opinion and confidence: a greater degree of citizen oversight. Whether this takes the form of a citizens’ advisory committee that he creates and appoints, or a commission, with statutory authority to review sheriff’s operations and provide oversight.
Whatever happens going forward, I think it’s clear some significant changes are in store at our Sheriff’s Office, and, moving forward, this can only be a good thing for public safety in Island County.
- Columnist JOHN B.GREET is a retired police sergeant from Southern California who now lives on Whidbey Island. He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management.