Island County Jail makes positive changes since inmate death

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Island County Jail has made serious changes a little more than a year after the death of an inmate.

Keaton Farris, who suffered from mental illness, died in the Island County Jail April 7, 2015 of dehydration.
Farris’ family, joined by hundreds of community members, rallied around the issue, staging protests and demanding better practices at the jail. Island County Sheriff Mark Brown shared his remorse and regret in a statement last June and began the search for a new jail chief who could make the changes the jail desperately needed.

“We are determined to do everything possible to minimize the chances of this kind of a tragedy from occurring in our jail ever again,” Brown said.

Brown found a solution to the problem in Jose Briones, who had been with the Washington State Department of Corrections in Monroe since 2002, and has audited other facilities and consulted at jails nationally. Briones began his job in December and replaced former jail chief De Dennis, who was suspended after Farris’ death and later retired.

An investigation later revealed Farris failed to receive the care and attention he needed due to his mental illness.

“What the issue was is they were locked in an era of old practices,” said Briones. “You get locked into a practice and habit. They were doing things from the 1980s. We’re putting processes in place if something happens. They didn’t know how to use a lot of the tools needed to prevent the death.”

The good news is that Briones has found the Island County jail staff, which oversees the 58-bed facility, is a tight knit group that has been very receptive to the new procedures and are working hard to improve inmate care.

Having seen a lot of other facilities, Briones said he has noticed that ”once you start showing them best practices and they improve, it’s safer for everyone. It sure makes it a lot easier when you have people who are willing to work with people and have some compassion.”

Changes at the jail include a $120,000 security update which includes a 25 percent increase in cameras and an additional viewer for staff, allowing deputies to better monitor all corners of the facility.

“Cameras don’t stop things from happening,” Briones said, “but when you have that ability to go back and see what happened, it can be preventative.”

In other words, if an inmate knows that his or her actions could be used in court, it can give them pause to behave badly, he said.

The county also allotted around $250,000 for medical services, including two nurses offering five-day-a-week coverage in day and swing shifts and a supervisor who is on call over the weekend. Briones said that eventually, the jail would like to have nurses on hand 24/7.

Because the county’s financial resources are finite, Briones is hoping to tap into existing resources such as partnering with Island County Health Services to assist with mental health needs as well providing telemedicine through other institutions.

Deputies are now required to attend Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), making sure that they know how to deal with people in crisis, including those with mental illness and addiction issues.

In addition to CIT training, Briones has initiated clear processes and a chain of command in the advent of a crisis. Among those are proper use of a temporary security cell, forced medication if necessary and having a restraint chair to prevent an inmate from harming themselves and others. Briones has formed a mental health/medical committee of jail staff and health professionals who discuss the mental and physical needs of the inmates each week.

Briones is also initiating other safety programs, like the one created under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), to improve the overall safety of the jail.

“Not everyone is doing this, but you’re a fool if you don’t,” Briones said of the federal PREA program. “A lot of things are happening now. It might seem like a lot, but there’s a lot more to be done.”

Brown, who has advocated for more law and justice funding for years, said that inmates with mental health issues need to be managed differently and they have learned to have an understanding of what that looks like with Briones’ help.

“I’m very proud of where we are,” Brown said. “I’m very pleased with Chief Briones and what he brings in terms of knowledge. He has a solid background in dealing with inmates who have problems. That in and of itself has certainly helped our jail to know how to handle people with mental illness and medical needs.”

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5 Comments

  1. Well done, Sheriff Brown and Chief Briones. These are much-needed and well-considered reforms that can only make Island County’s Jail safer for all concerned going forward.

    I would still recommend not housing those adjudged to be a danger to themselves, others, or gravely disabled in any jail facility and, if the Jail initially receives such people,that they transfer them safely back out again as soon as practical.

    Such people are best housed in the secure wings of hospitals that are specially equipped and staffed to provide the sort of care they most need.

    • Certainly it’s a good idea to transfer those that are mentally ill to secure hospitals. Where are these facilities located and are there beds available? What logistics are involved in actually getting these “patients” to the correct treatment?
      It seems that many of the large state run mental hospitals have closed in favor of “community dwelling” which is just a code phrase for “cutting them loose”. Until mental health reaches a true parity with one’s physical health problems the jails will continue populated by those with pervasive multi-faceted metal illness.

      • Thanks, Jason. I’ve been fortunate to have lived in many counties in several states, including beautiful Island County in Washington.

        In my current location the county maintains a secure wing in one of its hospitals where all criminal arrestees who are adjudged a danger to themselves, others, or gravely disabled are housed for at least 72 hours, while county mental health professionals evaluate and treat them under the protection and security of county custodial personnel.

        In this way, the priority remains mental health assessment and treatment but with full accommodation for the importance of maintaining these persons in secure custody pending criminal and civil adjudication.

        Another idea for addressing those in Island County who have mental health or emotional disturbance challenges and who law enforcement may encounter, is to pair a number of specially-trained county patrol deputies and local police officers with a mental health professionals.

        This would help law enforcement more accurately and quickly assess these sorts of people and deal with them more safely and get them the competent treatment they need more efficiently, so as to limit the liability inherent in dealing with them from a purely criminal justice perspective.

  2. John, thanks for the detailed reply. Are you still in Island County? You would make a valuable addition to some of our citizen boards or even in an elected position.

    • Thank you and, no, I am not still a resident. I left the area to pursue a professional position elsewhere, but I will always care about and remain engaged in public policy challenges in Island County and Oak Harbor.

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