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In Our View: An ombudsman for Snohomish Co.

Jail deaths require action

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The 2011 death of 27-year old Lyndsey Elizabeth Lason is an action-forcing horror, a tragedy that demands more than a financial settlement and a "we're quite sorry" letter from county and city attorneys.
As The Herald's Eric Stevick reported Wednesday, Lason died at the Snohomish County Jail of a pulmonary infection. It was a slow, excruciating death. Lason was young, her condition treatable. But personal misfortune crossed with professional inattention. As former county forensic pathologist Carl Wigren writes as part of a $10 million wrongful-death claim, the medical staff and corrections officers were complacent. "Despite her repeated requests, sometimes specifically for an X-Ray of her chest, the medical staff did not adequately assess her medical condition," Wigren writes. "Simple diagnostic tests could have saved her life."
Stevick presents a heart-rending narrative of a troubled woman whose rattled breathing and pleas for help went unattended. Was Lason's death an aberration? She is one of seven inmates to die at the county jail since 2010. Another death, that of 22-year old Michael Saffioti last July, throws the question into relief.
Saffioti, who turned himself in on a misdemeanor marijuana charge, died from bronchial asthma triggered by severe allergies. Did he have access to the bag of medications needed to control his life-threatening food allergies and respiratory problems?
Another troubling unknown is whether resource issues influence medical options. Two years ago, The Herald's Noah Haglund reported that higher-than-expected medical costs for inmates pushed the jail $1.4 million over budget in 2010. Juxtapose a renewed budget discipline with the Lason and Saffioti deaths, and it doesn't look good, even if there's no causal relationship.
The time has come for an independent county Ombudsman to police complaints (The Herald Editorial Board opined about this last Sunday in response to the Reardon scandals.) Using the King County Ombudsman's office as a template, citizens would have a vehicle to investigate accusations against administrative agencies, from the jail, to the Sheriff's office, to the office of the county executive. Whistleblower and ethics complaints also fall to the Ombudsman.
In King County, half of the cases center on the county jail. In 2008, for example, the office found that Jail Health Services didn't provide care to Lynn Dale Iszley, contributing to the inmate's death. The mission is to facilitate a solution in real time and resolve problems quickly. The approach creates a culture of accountability.
Lason's and Saffioti's deaths call for something meaningful. An Ombudsman's office is a first step.

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