Franklin County Sheriff's Office Sued: Witness Inside Jail Explains Conditions

PASCO, WA - The Franklin County Sheriff's office faces a class action lawsuit that alleges inmates are mistreated and confined in ways that are unconstitutional.

Columbia Legal Services, a group that works to make sure Washington jails are following their legal obligations, believes the Franklin County Jail has the worst conditions in the state.

NBC Right Now was able to take a look at some of the claims from the lawsuit and get answers as to why this group believes some of the protocol followed in the jail could be unlawful. What we found is that Sheriff Richard Lathim isn't denying some of the claims because he believes these actions to be the best way to keep inmates safe.

"Some of it's just totally not true. What little bit is true is taken out of context or misrepresented and exaggerated," explained Lathim.

Chaining inmates for days, pepper spraying without reason and denying any and all visitation are just some of those claims. The claims and the suit stems from pre-trial inmates in the jail and at this time they are simply just claims.

"We've had a couple inmates that have done thousands of dollars worth of damage and continue to do so even just a couple days ago."

Lathim explains that many of these conditions including broken toilets and no lights in cells are because inmates are tearing up their own cells. They’re even breaking windows and causing damage to the fairly new facility that opened up at the end of February.

“There were two prisoners that were handcuffed to the chain link fence that surrounds the guard station," said Carrie Wilkinson.

It might sound like an alarming sight to see for someone like Wilkinson who was on her first visit ever interview in a Washington jail. The Senior Paralegal at the Human Rights Defense Center in Seattle visited to conduct interviews with inmates just last week. Columbia Legal Services pointed to her as a good witness for NBC Right Now to speak with.

"They were kind of just sitting out on a floor in the hallway chained to a fence."

As the sheriff explained, that fence is a temporary holding area where inmates are placed until they are booked into the jail. A new booking center is under construction right now and will be able to hold those prisoners once it is complete. The lawsuit claims the new center isn't enough and to place inmates where visitors can see them is a form of public humiliation.

“Everything is done to protect inmates, from themselves, from other inmates and also to protect the staff," said Lathim.

The new booking area will also have cameras in each cell to monitor those destructive inmates and those who could be harmful to themselves. Whether or not the current conditions are constitutional is set to likely be hashed out in court. In the meantime those inmates suing the county sheriff’s office will still serve their time.

"We're stuck with them and they're stuck with us."

Lathim says the construction of that new booking area is scheduled to be completely finished in about one month but will hold inmates sooner. It will have video conferencing setup for inmates with to easily meet with their visitors. It will also have new individual holding cells for inmates that need to be separated and watched closely. 

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