A settlement could soon be reached in a lawsuit filed last year against Franklin County that claimed jail staff repeatedly and severely mistreated inmates.
Lawyers representing the county and Columbia Legal Services met twice last week in Yakima in closed-door sessions trying to negotiate a resolution.
Although an agreement was not reached, lawyers from the legal aid organization based in Seattle are pleased with how discussions have gone and expect a settlement can be reached soon, said attorney Nick Straley. A hearing before a U.S. District Court judge is scheduled for this week.
Columbia Legal Services is asking for changes in policies and procedures within the jail rather than monetary damages, he said.
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“I hope we reach a resolution,” he said. “I think we made some pretty good progress. We are happy the new administration is working on reforming serious problems under the old administration.”
The lawsuit was filed in August 2014 when Richard Lathim was sheriff and Capt. Rick Long was running the day-to-day jail operations. Lathim denied the accusations of mistreatment, calling the lawsuit a “bunch of lies.”
Current Sheriff Jim Raymond was elected in November and took over the sheriff’s office in January. Long was replaced by Commander Steve Sultemeier, who once ran the jail in Pacific County and has worked for the state Department of Corrections.
Straley noted improvements have been made since Raymond took over, though he declined to go into detail about those changes. He told the Herald that Raymond and his staff have shown an “interest in reform.”
The lawsuit claimed inmates were subjected to inhumane and barbaric practices, like being chained to a fence for days, forced into isolation, left in restraint chairs and pepper sprayed for no reason.
It mentioned the apparent mistreatment of mentally ill inmates, including one case where a man bit off two of his fingers after being chained to the fence, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claimed inmates were strapped in restraint chairs for long periods of time without medical attention or much supervision, they were forced to sleep on concrete floors without blankets for extended periods of time and were denied access to family visits, phone calls and outdoor activities.
A lawyer from Columbia Legal Services called the jail “among the worst, if not the worst” out of the 20 facilities the organization had examined statewide.
Part of the organization focuses on investigating inmate complaints and possible rights violations in Washington jails, prisons and other facilities.
Lawyers from the organization continue to review documents and investigate mistreatment allegations from when Lathim was sheriff, Straley said.
“I am confident if we have to prove our case we can do it based on what we have discovered,” Straley said.
And, already this year, a man died while being booked into the jail after he apparently had a medical problem during a struggle with corrections officers, officials said.
The Tri-City Special Investigations Unit is investigating the death of Russell E. Sharrer, 54, who was arrested by a state trooper after a traffic stop and started acting paranoid on the way to the jail, officials said. The report has yet to be released.
Raymond told the Herald that the lawsuit prevents him talking about specific improvements the jail has made or changes in policies.
“We are building straight from the ground up, reviewing all policies and practices,” he said. “Everything is open to look at for improvement.”