A Klickitat County inmate’s deteriorating health raises new concerns about jail

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
March 13, 2024 10:46 p.m.

“It’s easy to blame the jail, but this is a problem that who created? The state of Washington has failed miserably,” jail boss Loren Culp said.

Warning: This story contains graphic details of a Klickitat County Jail inmate’s physical condition after being taken to a hospital.

Last November, a female inmate from the Klickitat County Jail appeared at a local hospital covered in bugs, potentially septic, and smelled “like dead rotting flesh,” according to an on-scene officer.


Her health while at the jail had declined to a point where nurses reportedly struggled to clean her without causing pain. One nurse became “aghast” when she attempted to shave the inmate’s matted hair.

“As [the nurse] moved [the inmate’s] hair, the skin on the back of her neck started pulling away from her scalp,” a Goldendale Police Department officer wrote in an incident report that night.

The incident had not been publicized until now. OPB obtained a copy of a report authored by an on-duty officer after she watched nurses try to treat the apparently ailing inmate.

The woman “had been deteriorating for a significant period of time,” Goldendale Officer Abigal Schoenborn wrote on Nov. 29, shortly after midnight. Schoenborn wrote that the woman had been in jail for more than two months.

“I was about ten feet outside the room and could smell her infection,” Schoenborn wrote. “While standing outside I could visibly see the bugs in her hair, and see how weak and in pain [the inmate] was. After cutting away [her] hair ... the nurses requested medication be started because she believed she was septic.”

Sepsis is the immune system’s response to a severe infection, but it’s a self-defense mechanism that itself can be fatal. It’s a chain reaction that can cause organ failure and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Top brass with the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, largely blamed the inmate’s health on state policies. They mostly declined to speak specifically about the case, citing privacy laws.

Loren Culp, who took the jail’s reins last March, said health and safety concerns at the jail reflect state policies that leave the jail understaffed and without permanent medical professionals.

He called his jail and other local jails “holding facilities” for some inmates whose behavioral health issues should be treated at a state psychiatric hospital. Generally speaking, Culp said some inmates “sit for months waiting for a bed to open up.”

The inmate’s circumstances haven’t been made clear in records or interviews. Neither she nor her family have returned phone calls. The inmate’s defense attorney also declined to comment for this article.

Court records show the woman was lodged in the jail for violating her probation. She was convicted of a domestic violence assault against a family member in November 2022. She has since been released.


To Sheriff Bob Songer, the jail staff had little ability to care for the woman and others in her condition. He said his office lacks the budget to hire permanent medical staff and alluded to the woman needing the help of behavioral health experts.

“You’ve got to keep in mind that we can’t force them to take medication. We cannot force them to take a shower. Our hands are pretty much tied,” Songer said.

As a politician, Songer is a conservative diehard who in the past made headlines for blasting COVID-19 restrictions and threatening state employees who enforced them in his county. He appointed Culp, a once-gubernatorial candidate with similar politics, to run the jail last year.

Culp, in a separate interview, echoed Songer’s sentiment about corrections deputies having little ability to prevent an emergency situation like the woman’s in November.

“Corrections deputies are not allowed to strip an inmate and check their skin to see if they have mites or fleas or anything like that,” he said. “If an inmate doesn’t want to get up to use the bathroom and they want to continually soil themselves or urinate on themselves, we can’t force them to get up and use the toilet.”

While the inmate had been lodged in the Klickitat County Jail for a period of time, it’s unclear what incited jail staff to send her to the local hospital, Klickitat Valley Health. Culp said corrections deputies are authorized to react to emergencies by calling for EMTs, who then decide whether someone should go to the hospital.

He lamented, however, that the jail is understaffed. There are two deputies per shift, he said, and the inmate population averages about 30 people, though the facility can house up to 49 people.

According to Culp, the jail’s primary medical resource is a physician’s assistant based more than 100 miles away who visits two or three times a month and otherwise meets with jail staff by phone or email. Songer said he’s asked the hospital to send a nurse to volunteer at the jail.

Culp also pointed a finger at what he considers a bottleneck for training corrections deputies. He said some of his deputies can’t attend state-mandated training until spring 2026. One-third of his corrections deputies haven’t been trained, he said.

“It’s easy to blame the jail, but this is a problem that who created? The state of Washington has failed miserably,” Culp said.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs does have accreditation standards for jails, but Culp said Klickitat County is not accredited there or by any other policy agency.

Cindi Morrow, a corrections deputy in Clark County, agreed that jails are difficult places for people with behavioral health issues and that staff have to be aware of protocols that protect inmates’ civil liberties. She noted that it can be the deputies’ responsibility to keep cells and inmates in clean, sanitary conditions.

“We have inmates that, if we left them unattended, they’d turn out exactly like what you described,” Morrow said. “We get them up, we wash them off, we get them fresh clothes.”

Two Washington attorneys who have litigated with the jail on behalf of inmates or their families criticized Klickitat County after learning about the female inmate’s hospital visit last fall.

“It’s devastating, and it’s in line what we’re seeing [in other cases,]” said Corinne Sebren.

Sebren represents the family of Ivan Howtopat, a man who died by suicide in the jail in May 2023. The family announced earlier this year they plan to file a wrongful death lawsuit.