Shannon Jefferson’s family settles jail death suit against Whatcom County
The family of Lummi tribal member Shannon Rose Jefferson has settled a Whatcom County Superior Court wrongful death lawsuit against Whatcom County, arising from her suicide death in March 2014 while in county custody.
“Shannon’s life mattered,” said the family’s lawyer Ryan Dreveskracht, a civil rights lawyer with Galanda Broadman, PLLC, in Seattle. “We hope this settlement will cause Whatcom County to afford citizens like Shannon greater mental health care.”
Nationally, suicide has been the leading cause of death in jails every year since 2000. This risk is disproportionately high among inmates who are mentally ill —especially those housed in solitary confinement. Native American communities are disproportionately impacted by this phenomenon.
The suicide rate amongst Native Americans is more than 3.5 times higher than those of non-ethnic minorities. These same individuals are overrepresented in United States prisons and jails — while Natives represent only .9 percent of the total population, they represent 1.5 percent of the incarcerated population.
In Washington State, Native Americans make up less than 2 percent of the state population, but 4.5 percent of people in jail. A recent study by Columbia Legal Services observes that in Washington, “Native people died in jail at a higher rate than the population of Native people in jails.”
Shannon and her cousin Paula Jefferson — a Lummi Nation member who died of illness at age 48 in Whatcom County's custody in 2017 — were among at least 14 Native Americans who perished in Washington and Oregon county jails between 2008 and 2018. Suicide accounted for more than a third of those deaths, according to investigative journalists Austin Jenkins and Sydney Brownstone.
The risk factors are well known to reasonable stat and local corrections administrators. It is also well known that the tragedy of Native American-inmate suicide is not insurmountable. Utilizing knowledge of the factors that put this population at an increased risk of suicide, reasonable corrections administrators formulate mental health and suicide prevention policies that target these dynamics. And, if adequate supervision and training is implemented, corrections staff can prevent a majority of these suicides.
In Shannon’s case, though, none of that happened.
Despite documentation of her “extensive history of suicide attempts,” previous hospitalizations, and being informed that she “takes meds for depression,” she was not ever seen by a mental health provider. Instead, Shannon was placed in an “isolation cell” for two days, where according to other inmates her “demeanor and attitude” began to noticeably decline.
At age 36, Shannon took her own life while in solitary confinement on March 10, 2014.
Her family’s lawsuit alleged that Whatcom County and its contracted medical and mental health staff repeatedly ignored Shannon’s known suicide risk factors and failed to take reasonable means to alleviate them.
The lawsuit further alleged that conditions at the Whatcom County Jail significantly contributed to Shannon’s death. The “isolation cell” that Shannon was housed in has been described by Whatcom County itself as “the equivalent of a large bathroom,” in which inmates are locked for 23 hours a day.
Because of understaffing and overcrowding, Whatcom County policy requires that inmates — even those seriously mentally ill — be observed only once an hour while in isolation. Finding that at least 40 percent of all suicides in Washington jails happened while inmates were in solitary confinement—“usually without constant, direct observation by staff” — Columbia Legal Services calls for an end to the “dehumanizing” process.
In Whatcom County, inmates are not medically or psychologically cleared before being housed in isolation; Columbia Legal Services says that a suicide risk assessment should happen at the outset of an inmate’s placement in isolation. When evaluation is provided in Whatcom County, according to County officials it “occur[s] through a chow hatch in a cell door without the benefit of the privacy needed to elicit accurate information or provide meaningful counseling.”
“That’s simply not mental health care,” said Dreveskracht.
Whatcom County has also admitted that “[t]he security monitoring system is outdated and does not adequately cover all of the detention areas well” and that they “don’t have sufficient staffing to implement direct supervision” when it comes to high-risk inmates.
“There is no question that Whatcom County can do better — much, much better — to protect the lives of the people in its custody,” continued Dreveskracht. “Native American and mentally ill citizens, in particular, deserve much more humane treatment.”
Shannon was a member of the Lummi Nation and a mother of six children. Her mother Vicky Jefferson brought the lawsuit on behalf of Shannon’s estate and six surviving children, all members of the Lummi Nation.