ACLU-WA Sues to Stop Pierce County from Abusing and Neglecting Incarcerated Individuals Experiencing Mental Illness

News Release: 
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
The ACLU of Washington today filed a class-action lawsuit against Pierce County for refusing to provide necessary treatment to people with mental illness in the Pierce County Jail and subjecting them to illegal restraint and isolation practices. As a result of these unlawful actions, people with mental illness suffer unnecessarily while in the jail, and can spend years cycling in and out of the criminal justice system.
“It’s cruel, counterproductive, and illegal for jails to refuse people experiencing mental illness the treatment they need,” said ACLU-WA Equal Justice Works Fellow Jessica Wolfe. “Pierce County punishes people for their mental illnesses while at the same time refusing to provide basic mental health services.  These policies and practices cause significant psychological harm and contribute to a revolving door of incarceration that is both costly and ineffective,” Wolfe said.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on behalf of people experiencing mental illnesses incarcerated in Pierce County Jail, the lawsuit—Bango et. al v. Pierce County—asserts that people are forced to wait months to see a mental health provider face-to-face, experience significant delays in receiving necessary medications, and are denied basic mental health services, despite repeated requests for treatment. 
As a result, their mental illnesses progress unchecked, leading to hallucinations, delusions, and an increased risk of self-harm.  Pierce County then punishes people experiencing mental health crises by placing them in solitary confinement, using eyebolts to chain their legs and arms to the concrete floor, and leaving them in restraint chairs for hours on end.  Pierce County perpetuates this vicious cycle by releasing people directly into the community without a supply of their psychiatric medications.  Due to their untreated illnesses, many will end up back at the Jail. 
The suit was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs with mental illness who have suffered serious harm due to the Pierce County’s abusive practices and failure to provide treatment:
  • Donald Bango served in the US military for 15 years and has received a Bronze Star and a Meritorious Service Medal.  Mr. Bango was medically retired from the military due to mental health issues stemming from the violence he witnessed during his service in Iraq. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, and panic disorder.  As a result of his mental illnesses, Mr. Bango experiences visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions, and flashbacks.  Mr. Bango’s mental health has deteriorated significantly since his booking into the Pierce County Jail due to Defendants’ unwillingness to provide medically necessary psychiatric medications, access to mental health providers, and other basic mental health services. Defendants have also placed Mr. Bango in solitary confinement and left him naked and alone in a cell with his arms handcuffed behind his back.  Despite Mr. Bango’s ongoing concerns about falling into further mental health crisis or psychosis, his requests for psychiatric medications have repeatedly been denied by Defendants, who have informed him that he did “not meet the requirements” for mental health care and told him to stop requesting services. 
  • Scott Bailey has been diagnosed with major depression, experiences anxiety, and has a history of suicide attempts. Mr. Bailey has been incarcerated at the Pierce County Jail approximately eight times, dating back to 1999. Defendants have routinely failed to adequately screen Mr. Bailey’s mental health conditions, mental health history, or use of psychiatric medications.  Further, Defendants have failed to provide him with timely access to basic mental health services, despite his repeated requests.  Defendants have responded to his pleas for help by informing him that the Jail was “not set up to do treatment” and denying him psychiatric medications and counseling.  In lieu of treatment, Mr. Bailey received “mental health worksheets” instructing him to get enough sleep and exercise more. 
Pierce County’s failure to appropriately supervise the Jail to prevent the abuse of the most vulnerable in their care is unlawful and inhumane. “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.
The suit asserts Pierce County Jail violates the constitutional right to due process and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, along with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
Pierce County Jail’s policy and practices continue despite decades of notice about these problems, including prior litigation, Herrera v. Pierce County, brought by the ACLU-WA and others in 1995. In settlement of that suit, Pierce County was required to adopt constitutional medical care standards, policies, and procedures.
ACLU-WA Equal Justice Works Fellow Jessica Wolfe and Senior Staff Attorney Antoinette Davis and cooperating attorneys, Salvador Mungia and Janelle Chase-Fazio of Gordon Thomas Honeywell, are representing the Plaintiffs.