King County's 'Dangerous' Jail Cells: U.S. Finds Hazards that Enabled Repeat Inmate Suicides

King County reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice more than two years ago to prevent inmate deaths and improve unhealthy living conditions in the aging downtown jail. Yet suicides have continued at the Fifth Avenue lockup, and now U.S. officials have found what they describe as 44 "dangerous cells" that house suicidal inmates. Though the jail has been suicide-proofed in recent years, prisoners were still able to hang themselves on the cells' exposed features.

Seattle Weekly reported the death risk last month, obtaining jail documents that revealed that three prisoners killed themselves in a one-month stretch last year, each of them slumping to their deaths: "With fewer ways to insert a sheet or other objects into overhead devices and dangle to their deaths, the inmates tied sheets or clothing to beds and fixtures, then sat or leaned forward as their nooses asphyxiated them."

Ryan Robertson, 33, was found Sept. 20 in his cell with his uniform pants tied around his neck and looped through the plumbing to his toilet; Arnold Sharkey, 45, was found Sept. 10 leaning into a sheet tied around his neck and attached to an upper bunk; and Christopher Goldner, 32, was found Aug. 16 with a sheet around his neck tied to his cell sink. He sat down and waited for the sheet to strangle him.

A new Justice Dept. quarterly monitoring report on the jail's dangers cites those deaths and at least one other attempted suicide where inmates were able to access cell features to asphyxiate themselves. In particular, sheets or inmate clothing, including pants or shirts, were attached to an exposed pipe "chase" in inmate cells. A chase is a vent space or box holding a series of pipes. Ironically, a chase is used to hide pipes that would otherwise be exposed and accessible.

For the most part, the jail's suicidal-housing areas "continue to be safe and do not contain any obvious protrusions that could act as an anchoring device in a hanging attempt," say the feds in their report.

But, the report adds, a closer look shows that 44 "non-suicide-resistant cells" currently house suicidal inmates. A Justice Dept. official "most alarmingly" found 22 suicidal inmates housed in "these dangerous cells" during a recent tour of the jail. Measures were begun immediately to renovate those cells to eliminate the hazards, including installing 44 new stainless-steel sink/toilet units with hidden pipe chases so sheets or clothing can no longer be attached to them.

The oversight team from the Justice Department works under an arrangement similar to one that Justice may end up imposing on the Seattle Police Department as well. In both cases, the feds are attempting to make sure that the county and the city comply with civil-rights laws during arrests and imprisonment. That includes taking measures to protect subjects' health and well-being, and, most important, to keep them alive.

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