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Snohomish County Jail deaths getting national scrutiny

The Snohomish County Jail holds about 1,200 inmates on any given day. (KIRO Radio Photo/Chris Sullivan)
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A stay in jail is not supposed to be fun, but an inmate certainly doesn't expect to die while serving less than a year for your crime. Yet Snohomish County has had eight jail deaths in the last three years, and it's concerning enough to the county that an independent review of the facility is about to begin.

Inmates expect to serve their time and go home. County jail stays are usually short. Some people are in for a few days. Others nearly a year.

If you get sick, there's a medical unit with a part-time doctor, full-time nurses, a mental health professional to help you, and plenty of services.

But what makes these eight deaths since 2010 so concerning is that three of them involve medical care - or the lack of it.

Michael Saffioti, 22, had severe allergies and the jail knew it, but he died of an allergic reaction. Elizabeth Lason, 27, complained for days of stomach pain while in jail but didn't get a lot of attention. Her chest filled with fluids, and she died.

And last week 51-year-old Kathleen Swann-Deutsch died after coming in for a DUI. She blew 0.31. Her cause of death hasn't been released.

Jail operations manager Captain Harry Parker takes every death seriously.

"We want zero," he said. "Trust me. We take it very, very serious. My goal is to have zero deaths, period. I don't care what the cause is. I don't want anyone to die here, ever. I don't want anyone to get here, inmates or staff."

To put the eight deaths in perspective, there are roughly 1,200 inmates at the facility. The Pierce County Jail has about the same number but only had four deaths in the last three years. King County has 1,800 inmates. It had 15 deaths over that time.

"We're always looking to improve," Captain Parker said. "We do that every day with our policies, our procedures, our protocols. That's why I personally go around, walk around, 'Hey how you doing this? How can you improve it?' Asking the people that work the line. We're doing everything we can."

Former prison doctor Jim Windeck said Snohomish County's death totals appear high to him, especially considering their connection to medical care.

"That would certainly raise my eyebrows a little bit," he said. "You've got a lot of deaths, but there may be explanations for it which are appropriate, but on the other hand, there may be some lack of care, lack of continuity."

It's those kinds of questions that spurred former Sheriff John Lovick, now Snohomish County Executive Lovick, to ask the National Institute of Corrections to review the county jail and see if there's an underlying problem or something that needs to be done differently.

That review is scheduled for September and Captain Parker welcomes it.

"An independent review, I think, is a good thing," he said. "I really do because we all want to do what's right."

The other deaths at the Snohomish County jail have included overdoses, natural causes and suicides.

Lason's death is the subject of a $10 million lawsuit. Saffioti's family has hired an attorney and might file a lawsuit.


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