Jail reforms past due | Editorial

Keaton Farris should not have died.

At age 25, he should be hanging out with his friends on Lopez Island or in Coupeville. He should be teasing his sisters or traveling the world.

Keaton and his family deserve answers — and justice.

Those who are responsible for the young man’s death must be held accountable, whether that means losing their jobs or facing criminal prosecution. And all of us must care enough about this tragedy to demand that problems inside the Island County Jail that led to his horrifying death are corrected.

If Keaton were your son, brother or friend, wouldn’t you expect that?

Island County Sheriff’s Office Detective Ed Wallace’s no-holds-barred report on the series of unfathomable errors that led to Keaton Farris’ death are damning.

Farris was being held on an identify theft charge out of San Juan County and was incarcerated since March 26 at the Island County Jail, which holds inmates from the San Juans under an interagency contract. He died from dehydration and malnutrition under the watch of jailers, government employees entrusted by the community to watch over people who are essentially powerless.

Keaton’s death indicates that members of a sheriff’s administration were so uninvolved in their jobs that such negligence could go unnoticed to the point of becoming fatal.

It points to a system that is severely broken.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown claimed responsibility for the errors that occurred in the jail, as he should.

Brown broke the news of Keaton’s death to his father, Fred Farris, and he promised that the case would be investigated as if it were his own son who had died.

The sheriff says he’s on a mission to rectify the problems at the jail.

Is it too little, too late? That’s a question that remains to be answered. Whether Brown is the right person to lead this mission to fix the jail will be determined in the coming days, but so far he’s taken all the right steps.

Brown said he’s committed to being as transparent as possible about what happened and what changes he’ll make going forward. He must hold to that promise regardless of the outcome.

Brown and Undersheriff Kelly Mauck made immediate changes at the jail that Brown said will ensure inmate safety in the wake of the tragedy. He said he plans to bring an expert in jail administration to do a comprehensive review of the facility.

Two corrections deputies who falsified logs were placed on administrative leave the day after Farris’ death; they have since resigned. Brown also placed the lieutenant overseeing the jail on administrative leave while a disciplinary process moves forward.

Jail Chief De Dennis was suspended for a month without pay, but Brown said he plans to bring him back to work with the jail expert. De Dennis’ employment will depend on what the expert has to say.

Of course, there are much larger issues at play. It’s no secret that the state hasn’t funded the mental health system adequately for decades. It’s well documented that jails simply aren’t the right place to house people with mental health problems.

Sometimes it takes a great tragedy to open people’s eyes and drive the necessary changes that are clearly needed.

– Keven Graves, Whidbey News Times