By Medha Raman | LSJ Communications Assistant
Photos by Alexa Sinclair Photography
In recent years, jail deaths in Washington State have been on the rise. With the country moving away from psychiatric institutions in the 70s and 80s, jails have now become home to a large number of those who suffer from mental illness. Without proper medical facilities, training, and independent oversight within the jails, many of these individuals don’t receive treatment and eventually die in the care of the jails.
In response, several members of the LSJ community have been doing their part to address these issues and prevent future deaths.
Ryan Dreveskracht is a 2006 LSJ alum and an attorney who is representing several families of the deceased. As an attorney for Galanda Broadman, an Indian Country law firm, Dreveskracht is currently working on seven such cases, two of which are quite prominent.
The first is the case of 27-year-old Jimi Johnson, who suffered from schizophrenia. For several years, he had been in and out of jail for minor crimes. When he was finally booked into jail for the last time in 2013, it was clear that he was suicidal and needed special attention. Instead, he was put into solitary confinement and received no counseling or medical care. In April of 2013, he strangled himself to death using a bedsheet, devastating his grandmother, who had singlehandedly taken care of him for most of his life.
“After Jimi died, they didn’t change any of their policies,” Dreveskracht said. “You have those same policies in place— no training for mental illness; a lack of communication between subcontractors on who is mentally ill, who needs to be watched, who needs extra care; and a lack of funding,”
This resulted in 31-year-old Brandon Dahl facing a similar situation just two years later. He had a series of incarcerations from a young age, each time lasting only three to four days. In 2015, he was booked into jail for the last time, where he was given an “attitude adjustment” and severely beaten. A few days later, he hung himself with a bedsheet.
These deaths are a result of several policies that have been put in place over the years, from a failure to allocate funds for adequate care to a lack of training and facilities within jails. Still, with few other options for mental health care, jails are the most likely place for individuals who suffer from mental health issues to end up.
“I think the larger issue is that we have no mental health care and we’re throwing folks in jail instead of giving them treatment that they need,” Dreveskracht said.
The effect of this has also grown from individual cases to a community issue. With a large number of cases like this and the growing rhetoric around criminal justice reform, members of the community are slowly starting to see the truth behind mass incarceration.
“It’s a community health issue.” Dreveskracht said. “People are starting to realize that their entire community is in danger—not just bad people, not just rapists or murderers, but their brother, sister, or uncle."
For Dreveskracht, these ideas are even more personal. After having spent his high school years being booked and released for minor infractions, he finally served six months in jail. When he was released, he made the decision to go to community college and his interest in the legal field took off. He transferred to UW to finish his undergraduate degree and then studied law at The University of Arizona. After working in criminal law and clerking for several judges, he found his true passion working with Indian law and civil rights law.
“It’s like it’s come full circle for me,” said Dreveskracht. “It’s so rewarding to be doing this work, which I always wanted to do.”
Emina Dacic and Alexa Sinclair
Emina Dacic and Alexa Sinclar are both seniors at UW studying LSJ. For the last four months, they have been interning at Columbia Legal Services (CLS), working on the Institutions Project.
According to CLS, “The Institutions Project focuses on the treatment of youth in the adult criminal justice system, conditions of confinement in Washington’s jails and prisons, and provides legal assistance to people reentering society after periods of incarceration.”
As part of the project, Dacic and Sinclair have been reviewing documents about deaths in Washington State, collecting data, and analyzing their findings. Eventually, these findings will be published in a comprehensive report on a public website.
“At this point, we just want to make it known what’s happening and create that public presence,” Sinclair said. “We hope to then use that to mobilize audiences and impact change.”
Through their research, Dacic and Sinclar have noticed many common threads about jail deaths in WA State, specifically noting the lack of medical care and detox facilities in most jails and the negative effects of medical sub-contracting within jails. They hope to eventually create legislation in order to get proper medical facilities, comprehensive jail policies, and an independent monitoring system in place to address these issues.
“I think it’s shocking to see how many deaths occur that could be prevented,” Dacic said. “There’s so many instances where if the jail staff had just checked on an individual like they were supposed to every 30 minutes, people would be alive today.”
Both students cite their experiences at UW, notably the LSJ mixed enrollment class, as an inspiration for working on this project.
“I feel like having our unique experience and being able to take the mixed enrollment class at UW allowed us to form real relationships with people who are currently incarcerated and made us really passionate about the issue,” said Sinclair. “It made us want to alleviate the injustices that we see in jails and in prisons.”
Dacic concurred, saying, “It pushed us to see things from a different perspective, which is exactly in line with what we’re trying to do now.”