Shannon Jefferson was booked into Washington’s Whatcom County Jail on Feb. 26, 2014, for a probation violation and failing to appear in court on a fourth degree assault charge. Twelve days later, Jefferson tied a bed sheet to the window in her isolation cell and hanged herself. She was 36 years old and the mother of six.
Three years later, on Aug. 9, 2017, police arrested Paula Jefferson for drunken driving and took her to the Whatcom County Jail. The following day she was dead of apparent methadone intoxication. She was 48 and a mother of four.
Paula and Shannon Jefferson were both Lummi tribal members. They were also cousins.
Their deaths in the Whatcom County Jail highlight two stark realities: Native Americans are disproportionately more likely to be in Northwest jails. As a result, they are also more likely to die in jail. While Native Americans make up less than 2% of the population in Washington and Oregon, they represent more than 4.5% of jail deaths. That’s according to an analysis of Northwest jail deaths by OPB, KUOW and the Northwest News Network.
A recent study on Washington jail deaths by Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm, concluded that Native Americans may also die at a higher rate in Washington jails. However, the report cautioned that “the small sample set of Native people who died makes it difficult to draw any conclusion with significant certainty.”
The findings reinforce studies that show Native Americans, as the result of generational trauma and discrimination, experience higher rates of incarceration, chronic disease and suicide. In fact, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest suicide rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“I’ll be very frank here: This is an issue of race,” said Margaret Severson, a jails consultant and professor of social work at the University of Kansas.
In 2005, Severson co-authored a first-of-its-kind report on American Indian suicides in jail that found Native American inmates “tended to be less candid” when asked by jailers about their physical and mental health, as well as drug and alcohol use. The report attributed this, in part, to a reluctance to answer “intrusive” questions about mental health and the fact a white officer in uniform is an authority figure who “may symbolize longstanding oppression.” The report suggested that suicide risk assessments “tailored to the cultural backgrounds” of inmates might be more effective than “one-size-fits-all” screenings.
Standards developed by the American Correctional Association call for jail mental health care programs to take into account “gender, cultural and age issues.” But Severson said much more work is needed to address the plight of Native Americans in jail.
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