Lawsuit: Pierce County mistreating mentally in in jails

SEATTLE -- Pierce County and the sheriff's office is violating the rights of mentally ill people held in its jail by subjecting them to illegal restraints and isolation, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a federal lawsuit.

Holding mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement without medications or access to treatment causes additional psychological harm and the likelihood the offender will be reincarcerated, according to the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on behalf of two mentally ill men.

"The goal of the lawsuit is to compel Pierce County to do what they refuse to do: ensure incarcerated individuals with mental illness are treated humanely and receive necessary mental health treatment and services," says ACLU-WA Senior Staff Attorney Antoinette Davis.

Libby Catalinich, a spokeswoman for Pierce County, said: "Although we can't comment on the specifics of this pending litigation, Pierce County has made significant investments in the behavioral health needs of our community this year, including individuals in the jail. It will continue to be a high priority going forward."

Donald Bango was arrested after a man died during a drug deal that went bad, and Scott Bailey was jailed on drug charges, and both suffered from mental illnesses that worsened due to their jail experience, the lawsuit said.

Bango is a 40-year-old veteran who was diagnosed with bipolar, panic and depressive disorder and PTSD stemming from his military service in Iraq. He experiences hallucinations, delusions and flashback and takes a list of medications to help stabilize his symptoms, the lawsuit said. When he was arrested in 2015, he told the EMT who handled the booking process about his diagnosis and said he had been suicidal the previous year.

The jail staff didn't contact the Veteran's Affairs regarding Bango's medications and placed him in solitary confinement in a wing of the jail known as "the hole" without basic mental health care.

"As a result, Mr. Bango began to mentally decompensate and 'just wanted to die,'" the suit said. "He began to have delusions and hallucinations and started to believe that the sprinkler light in his cell was sending him signals, telling him to kill himself."

In the weeks that followed, Bango continued to deteriorate and despite asking for help, the suit said.

"Defendants have denied Mr. Bango medically necessary psychiatric medications and access to mental health providers during his incarceration. They have also improperly placed him in solitary confinement and left him alone in a cell with his arms handcuffed behind his back after pepper spraying him in the face."

Scott Bailey, 45, was diagnosed with depression and had attempted suicide many times. He had been arrested eight times since 1999 and was placed in isolation and under suicide watch, the lawsuit said.

While in jail, he continually asked for help but staff failed to provide him with timely access to psychiatric medications or other basic mental health services, the suit said.

The county and the jail are violating the Constitutional rights of Bango, Bailey and other inmates with mental illnesses by providing inadequate mental health care and using isolation, force and restraints, the suit said.

The ACLU is seeking class-action status of the lawsuit, so in includes all mentally ill inmates.