Yakima County jail restricts text messaging for domestic violence suspects

YAKIMA, Wash. — The Yakima County jail has adopted a new policy restricting inmates accused of domestic violence from using the text messaging app on their jail-issued tablets.

The new policy is a response to concerns voiced in the fall by police officers and other members of the Yakima Domestic Violence Coalition about inmates violating no-contact orders from the jail by sending texts to threaten and intimidate their victims.

“Every message that would be sent was considered its own violation, so we were having hundreds and thousands of violations,” said Det. Mike Durbin, who works in the Yakima Police Department’s special assault unit.

KAPP-KVEW previously reported on the problem last fall as part of an investigative series looking into the epidemic of violence in the city of Yakima.

Durbin said they were struggling to navigate complex legal issues that required them to get a search warrant to obtain the text messages they needed in order to prove a no-contact order violation was occurring.

However, in many cases, the inmates had already intimidated their victims into stopping all cooperation with police — cooperation officers needed to get a search warrant for those text messages.

“Victims, oftentimes, when they see that you can’t stop the perpetrator even after they’re arrested from reaching out or influencing or exerting control of their lives, it’s understandable why they wouldn’t trust you any further in the investigation,” Durbin said.

Yakima County jail officials said the tablet program as a whole, benefits everyone because it provides educational programs to help inmates better themselves while they’re in jail and has entertainment options to keep them busy.

“The tablets mean a lot to the inmates; I mean, it’s kind of their way to relieve stress,” Yakima County jail Chief Bill Splawn said “When they get in trouble for whatever reason, and those taken away, it’s a big behavioral thing we have that we can use to alter that behavior.”

Splawn said they’ve seen a noticeable decrease in fights and behavioral issues among the inmates since they started the tablet program. He said the text messaging app has also helped to improve inmates’ mental health.

During the pandemic, Splawn said inmates had a hard time connecting with family and friends concerned about their welfare with other communication options in the jail being limited. He said that’s why the text messaging app is so important.

“It’s a lonely environment and you got to remember too that a good deal of our population are people that have not been convicted of a thing and have simply been charged, so it’s important for their mental well being as well,” Splawn said.

Splawn said they determined the best course of action would be to restrict text messaging access for inmates charged with a domestic violence offense, witness intimidation or harassment.

“Hopefully, that does away with those sort of violations and then we continue to work with the courts and local law enforcement as problems arise,” Splawn said.

Durbin said they have seen a smaller number of no-contact order violations, but the same number of inmates are still trying to get ahold of their victims by phone call, mail or by asking people outside the jail to contact them on their behalf.

“We still arrest a lot of offenders for violating no-contact orders from the jail, it’s just they’re more solid investigations and we’re able to block those numbers to the best of our ability to try and stop future violations,” Durbin said.

Additionally, Durbin said he’s able to keep the jail updated on which inmates have active domestic violence protection orders in place during the coalition’s morning meetings.

“Since we formed the coalition, we work much more hand-in-hand with the jail. And so I would say a major change is that I am getting regular reports from the jail about them finding violations. In the jail, there’s hundreds and hundreds of inmates, but through our conversations and our communications, they’re have bigger eyes and ears to say, ‘Hey, we believe there’s a violation.’ So the jail is actually reporting those to us. And we’re partnering together to try to keep those victims safe,” Durbin said.


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