Washington state jails cost taxpayers millions in wrongful death settlements

Inadequate medical care

The death of a 51-year-old man denied medical treatment for diabetes in an Aberdeen, WA, jail has brought renewed attention to the state’s inadequate and negligent care of incarcerated individuals.

[Clifford] Farrar, a 51-year-old with type 1 diabetes, had been insulin dependent since age 15. On the day he died, his medical records show, his blood sugar was dangerously low. When staff gave him glucagon to raise his levels, the records say, his blood sugar shot up, at which point he had a seizure and heart attack and died. The coroner said Farrar’s cause of death was “natural”, due to heart disease and diabetes.

Farrar requested an insulin pump during his first months in Stafford Creek corrections center last year. After suffering a seizure from low blood sugar, a doctor allowed his family to send a pump for his use while incarcerated.

The pump arrived at the facility and Farrar used it until he ran out of insulin supplies, writing on 11 October: “My supplies were paid for by my insurance company that I don’t have anymore. Is there any way the facility/department can pay for my needed supplies? Thank you.”

Staff responded a week later: “We are not able to pay for your pump supplies because the pump is personal property.”

Farrar collapsed roughly two months later. He was found on the ground, blood coming from his mouth, with a blood sugar level of 32 mg/dL (below 54 mg/dL is considered severely low). He was declared dead 55 minutes after being discovered.

After reviewing his medical records, Farrar’s family said they believed the prison had repeatedly neglected his health, including by denying him supplies that could have prevented his seizures, failing to check on him when he did not arrive to get his insulin shot, and responding too slowly to his final emergency.

“With the pump and better medical treatment that day, Clifford would still be alive,” Farrar-McQueen said.

Cancer in prison

The Washington Department of Corrections has a history of ignoring the health concerns of incarcerated people, leading to the deaths of numerous individuals. For example, in 2020, the Washington Medical Commission suspended the license of Dr. Julia Barnett—the former head doctor at Monroe Correctional Complex—after six people were harmed by inadequate medical care she provided or supervised. Three of the six died.

One of the individuals who died was 63-year-old Kenny Williams. In May of 2018, a nurse discovered a lump in Williams’ chest. No follow-up was scheduled despite his family’s history of breast cancer. Nearly six months later, the Dept. of Corrections finally arranged for Williams to see an oncologist after he complained of stabbing pains in his chest. The oncologist said Williams needed to start chemotherapy immediately.

Instead, he received no treatment. More than a year after the nurse first discovered the lump in his breast, Williams died. He was due to be released in just six months.

“I am dying. What is holding up the treatment that will save my life?” he wrote in one. A DOC grievance counselor responded by telling Williams his appeal was not properly signed and dated…

A breast cancer expert’s report commissioned by Williams’ lawyers said the pain and suffering from breast cancer “is among the most severe of any disease” and that it could have been avoided.

“With appropriate care, Mr. Williams’ life would have been prolonged for some years, and it is very likely that he might have returned to the life expectancy he would have had if the cancer had never occurred,” the report stated.

Williams’ family reached a $3.75 million settlement with the state.

In agreeing to the settlement, finalized last week, the DOC admitted its medical care failures “more likely than not” caused Williams’ suffering and death.

Sexual assaults in rural jail

The family of a young woman and mother who committed suicide in a Forks, WA, jail after being sexually harassed by a guard has reached a $1 million settlement with the small town.

Kimberly Bender, a 23-year-old member of the Quileute Tribe, was found dead in December 2019, hanged by a bed sheet in her cell. In the months before her suicide, Bender—who struggled with drug addiction, depression, and self-harm—reported being harassed and “tormented” by jail guard John Gray. According to a civil rights lawsuit filed by her family, the jail determined that her “allegations of misconduct” against him were “unsubstantiated.”

It turns out that Gray had a well-documented history of sexual harassment and had sexually assaulted four other incarcerated women in 2019, when Bender was in Forks jail.

John Russell Gray, the corrections officer who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Lee and three other women while they were inmates at the Forks Correctional Facility in 2019, had a thick disciplinary record and at least two dozen complaints against him over his 24-year career as a corrections officer.

Yet, officials at nearly every level — from the city of Forks to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and Gray’s local corrections union — repeatedly made decisions that allowed the predator to remain on the job as a guard, with power over a vulnerable population, a three-month KING 5 investigation found.

Bender reported Gray’s behavior to other jail officials:

Kimberly would be Defendant Gray’s fifth known victim. Between July 2019 and November 2019, Defendant Gray sexually harassed and tormented her…Defendant Gray specifically stalked Kimberly in her cell and made sexual comments several times per night. When Kimberly was asleep, Defendant Gray woke her up with vile remarks.

Kimberly, struggling with heroin withdrawal, was unable to sleep, rest, or relax because of Defendant Gray. In the middle of the night, when Kimberly tried to sleep, Defendant Gray perched himself in the doorway of her jail cell, preying over her and sexually tormenting her. Kimberly felt terrified for her safety at all times and, eventually, of no worth.

Gray was arrested approximately six months after Bender’s death. He pleaded guilty to two felony and two misdemeanor counts of custodial sexual misconduct in 2021 and was released from prison after serving 13 months of his 20-month sentence.

“I don’t think he got enough time because he used his power as a place of taking advantage of people,” said Jennifer Holmes, one of the four women Gray sexually assaulted. “[He used] his job as a way to get women to do what he wanted.”