A Yakima County Superior Court judge issued a summary judgment order this week in favor of Robert Lambert, an indigent person who was saddled with thousands of dollars in medical debt after becoming ill while detained at Kittitas County Corrections Center (KCCC). Judge Kevin Naught ruled that the jail violated state law when Mr. Lambert was made to sign documents assuming personal responsibility for medical debt incurred during his detention. 

In 2016, while being held at KCCC ahead of trial, Mr. Lambert contracted a serious and painful infection that required emergency treatment. He had no choice but to rely on the jail for his medical care as the infection was worsening and his life was at risk. Mr. Lambert was transferred to Kittitas Valley Hospital where he received intensive antibiotic treatment over several days. After he had recovered, KCCC handed him a stack of receipts, ultimately totaling more than $12,000. 

“Like many other people in jail, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have savings, I didn’t have any way to even make small payments on that amount they said I owed,” Mr. Lambert has said.

Mr. Lambert was represented by lawyers from the nonprofits Civil Survival and Columbia Legal Services, who celebrated the ruling this week, three years after first filing the lawsuit. “This case is just another example of the carceral system taking advantage of people. At its core, the court’s ruling is simple: the Kittitas County Jail must abide by the law,” said Tony Gonzalez, an attorney for Mr. Lambert.

Despite state law clearly laid out in RCW 70.48.130 that the “governing unit” is responsible for medical debt incurred in custody, KCCC staff had Mr. Lambert sign forms stating that he would be responsible for all medical expenses. Also contrary to the statute, the jail took no action to determine Mr. Lambert’s ability to pay, and the debt was ultimately sent to collections where it started to accrue interest.

Mr. Lambert’s experience highlights the overall unfairness people in poverty face within our criminal legal system, creating a cycle of debt and incarceration. Had Mr. Lambert been able to pay bail while he awaited trial, he would not have been held in detention in the first place. He may never have contracted the infection that sent him to the hospital, and for any medical treatment he did need, would have been able to apply for federal and state programs that cover hospital expenses for people who cannot pay. 

“This case is a recognition that people in Mr. Lambert’s position should not have to carry debt that tethers them to the criminal legal system for years, when they were too poor to pay in the first place,” said Prachi Dave, an attorney with Civil Survival who represented Mr. Lambert.

Washington’s jails are constitutionally required to provide emergency and necessary medical care for people in their custody. To pay for that care, Washington law outlines a system for jails to recover the costs of outside health care. As part of the initial booking process, jails are required to gather information about the person’s ability to pay for medical care, including whether the person has insurance. Additionally, at judgment and sentence, courts are authorized to require an individual to repay their medical costs based on their ability to pay. On Tuesday, Judge Naught agreed with Mr. Lambert that KCCC acted in plain violation of these laws and procedures.