Tri-City mom seeks protection for jailed people with disabilities

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerFebruary 17, 2009 

OLYMPIA -- Beki Hissam wants you to close your eyes and imagine being someone with autism, someone who doesn't process sensory input the same as others and who gets overwhelmed by too much light or noise or touch.

Then imagine being that person after being arrested for acting out -- scared in the booking room at the Benton County jail with fluorescent lights glaring, cell doors clanging, radios squawking, phones ringing, TV blaring, an angry drunk shouting profanity.

"Please pause for a moment and imagine the demand on officers and the stress on a person who is, for instance, autistic," Hissam told the House Human Services Committee in Olympia on Monday.

"In this area are drunk drivers, gang members, addicts withdrawing, suicidal individuals and an array of hostile people being booked in and out of jail. ... Now imagine an officer trying to care for 'Katie' in this environment. Katie is an adult-size 9-year-old girl. She's really 31, yet she's 9 in how she interacts with the world."

Hissam told Katie's hypothetical story to the committee members to urge them to support a bill that would ensure people with developmental disabilities get the proper care when incarcerated and after their release.

But the hypothetical story was based on her very real experiences as a Benton County jail chaplain and as the parent of an adult child with a developmental disability.

"Corrections staff need supports in place when faced with the challenge of folks with developmental disabilities in the jail," Hissam said. "Individuals with DD also need supports in place to help them understand an environment that is difficult for 'typical' people to understand. These are the most vulnerable people served in the correction facility."

House Bill 2078 introduced by Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Lynnwood, proposes to reinstate medical and other services for people with developmental disabilities while they're incarcerated.

Those services currently are lost when a person is incarcerated, meaning that people with disabilities aren't getting adequate care while in jails and prisons, Roberts said.

The bill also would direct the Developmental Disabilities Council to establish a screening tool for identifying when someone booked into a jail has a developmental disability, and provide training for corrections officers in how to handle those people while in jail.

"One of the points of the bill ... is that through this screening or having an understanding who is DD, we want to ensure the individual has an understanding what is happening to them," Roberts said.

She cited the example of a man named Bill Trask, who was booked into a county jail on a misdemeanor assault after his mother called 911. He spent two weeks in jail, but ended up in jail again hours after his release. He ended up spending 22 days in solitary confinement and refused food and water during his incarceration, which impaired his physical and mental health.

"Bill Trask is a very tragic example of someone who did not understand what was happening to him," Roberts said.

Roberts' bill would require that people identified as having developmental disabilities be given reasonable accommodations while in jail. What's reasonable would be determined by jail representatives, the Department of Corrections and protection advocates.

The final piece would set up a transition system to help people with developmental disabilities when they're released from jail so they get medical care and other services, the idea being to keep them from being re-incarcerated.

Roberts recognized that the state's current fiscal crisis -- and an expected deficit that could exceed $8 billion when preliminary revenue projections are released Thursday -- means most of her proposals probably won't be enacted this year.

"What we do here is take a first step and it will require follow-up," she said. "It will at least allow us to be a little more cautious, a little more clear in how we handle these individuals."

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