In Washington state, ACLU lawyers argue that persons with mental illness should not be jailed

MI in jail - B-WKathryn McCormick hasn’t seen her mentally ill son in months — not since he was arrested on a felony harassment charge and placed in a jail cell awaiting treatment.

“He’s in solitary confinement; he lost 40 pounds and he’s a former shadow of himself,” she said Friday. “He’s not getting the treatment he needs. He’s being kenneled like an animal.”

Lawyers for McCormick and three others filed a motion Friday asking a federal judge to immediately stop the state’s practice of housing mentally ill people in jails while they await court-ordered competency evaluations and treatment. The patients’ conditions are deteriorating, and one woman committed suicide while “languishing in jails,” said Emily Cooper, one of the group’s lawyers.

Under state law, when someone is arrested, they must be competent to help with their case, said Sarah Dunne, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. State law also requires the Department of Social and Health Services to oversee evaluations to determine competency and to provide treatment to make the person well enough to participate in their defense. State law sets a target of one week to complete these tasks, Dunne said.

“But what we have here is waitlists for evaluations and for treatment,” she said. “We have more than 200 people waiting 20, 40, 60 days in jails. The jails are not equipped to handle these people, and they’re suffering.”

The motion, filed by the ACLU and Disability Rights Washington, asks for a temporary restraining order and injunction to stop the practice and asks the judge to declare that delaying evaluations and the restoration of competency is unconstitutional. The lawyers also want the judge to require the state to contract with private evaluators to bring the waitlist down to no more than one week and to use all existing hospital space to care for these patients.

Doug Honig, with the ACLU, said a hearing on the issue has been set for Wednesday.

Assistant Attorney General John McIlhenny, representing the state agency, filed a response late Friday saying the agency objects to the injunction and temporary restraining order. It also objects to holding a hearing on the issue early next week because it does not allow the agency time to prepare its arguments.

McCormick said her 28-year-old son was placed in the King County Jail six months ago. He was evaluated and found incompetent and should have been sent to Western State Hospital for treatment two months ago, but instead he’s sitting in a solitary cell, she said. He has already been held twice as long as he would have been held if he was convicted on the harassment charge, she said.

“He’s getting worse,” she said. “The jails are not right for those struggling with a mental illness. This is a traumatizing experience.”