Advocate drives better conditions for special populations at SCORE jail

Rather than resorting to litigation, the AVID program first identifies shortcomings and then calls for changes

Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) program of Disability Rights Washington established itself in 2014 to reform how county jails and state prisons throughout the state address the needs of inmates with disabilities and to fight on behalf of these vulnerable populations.

Among those are the South Correctional Entity (SCORE jail, its seven member cities of Auburn, Burien, Des Moines, Renton, SeaTac, Tukwila and Federal Way — the latter is leaving at the end of the year — and a number of contract agencies. The jail’s total capacity is 802 inmates.

Over a recent 20-month span, AVID trained its advocate’s eye on SCORE’s mental health and medical units, regularly sending in staff to visit the jail’s most secluded areas to assess the quality of care and housing the inmates there were getting.

And found some shortcomings.

But rather than resorting to litigation, said Heather McKimmie, director of the AVID program, AVID first identified the shortcomings and then called for changes at SCORE, which the jail quickly picked up and implemented.

Increasing its mental health staffing and committing resources, McKimmie said, enabled SCORE to open three mental health units, provide daily therapeutic programming and improve its provision of psychiatric medication.

Likewise, she said, the jail sharply reduced its use of solitary confinement, especially for inmates with mental illness.

“By meeting with inmates in their housing units and reviewing jail records, we were able to present SCORE with a clear and verified picture of our concerns. This is how we are able to give our meetings more of a problem-solving, rather than adversarial, spirit when we sit down with SCORE or any other jail or prison around the state,” McKimmie said.

Those efforts did not go unnoticed.

Recently, the Foundation for the Improvement of Justice selected AVID among six individuals and organizations throughout the nation for the national 2019 Paul H. Chapman Award, an acknowledgement of the innovative advocacy that produced the reforms at SCORE.

McKimmie noted that AVID, the only entity in Washington state with broad federal authority to access both prisons and jails, also investigates allegations of abuse, neglect and rights violations and takes letters and collect calls from every prison and jail in the state.

During AVID’s first year, the program stopped state prisons from continuing the practice of punishing inmates for self-harm and suicide attempts. In the following years, AVID reviewed policies and monitored conditions at all 38 county jails in the state and issued seven reports with recommendations.

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