A King County Jail Crisis — and What to Do About It

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Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay

Recently The Seattle Times published two stories and an editorial about suicides in the King County jail. The first story, on May 17,, focused on the failure to comply with a 2021 state law requiring it to review and publicly post analyses of unexpected jail deaths within 120 days. The editorial on May 16 stated: “In the past year, (county) elected officials responded quickly to a number of pressing concerns but apparently believed jail mental health could wait. That is a breach of responsibility.” 

A June 24 story precipitated by a suicide from hanging focused on the dangers of metal bunk beds. Striking about the Times coverage of jail suicides was what was NOT disclosed, namely the current conditions that greatly increase the risk of suicide. Such conditions are akin to those found in jails of third-world countries ruled by despots.

Some examples:

  • Overcrowding and understaffing: the jail population surged from 1,300 to 1,600 in the last six months. There are 85 custody staff vacancies, compared to 20 in 2020. 
  • Indeterminate trial or release dates: Because of the backlog in criminal court proceedings. Inmates have no idea when their trials or sentencing will occur. 
  • Isolation: A large proportion of inmates are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. There are no activities available to occupy their attention, not even  exercise. Radios are not permitted.
  • Visitor ban: For the past 2.5 years, no visitors have been allowed. A significant proportion of inmates have a chronic mental illness. My son is among them. One can only imagine what happens to minds that are already disordered, when they have no activities, and cannot see loved ones. The visitor ban was imposed at the beginning of the COVID epidemic, but with the drop in the number and severity of cases, the situation is now different. The risk of transmission between inmates still exists, but there is minimal risk of viral transmission between visitors and inmates. Before the ban they were separated by glass partitions and conversed by phone. 

Responsibility for the King County jail lies with the Executive Dow Constantine and the nine members of the County Council. Constantine has not publicly addressed the issue. In June the Council’s Committee on Law, Justice, Health, and Human Services discussed the recent spate of jail deaths. Concerns were voiced and hands were wrung, but no action was taken. 

The Executive and the councilmembers have hearts and they care about what’s happening in the jail. They just do not know what to do. Politicians are inundated by supplicants pulling at their sleeves on behalf of all kinds of causes, and rank-ordering priorities is difficult. 

I have an idea: Convene a meeting of the major players in the criminal justice system – the Executive, a Council member, the Prosecuting Attorney, the Director of the Office of Public Defense, and the Presiding Superior Court Judge. The meeting should take place in a small room with comfortable chairs in a circle; no table. All these individuals come with different perspectives. Consensus should be sought, turf barriers should drop, finger-pointing should not be allowed, nor should the commitment of anyone be questioned. The agenda: IMMEDIATE actions to alleviate unacceptable conditions in the jail. 

I also have some suggestions for improvements:

  • The custodial staff needs immediate help. In addition to vigorous recruitment, honor current staff members who are “sticking it out.” 
  • Drop charges for some non-violent offenders. Judges could hold a series of  Zoom sessions to address backlogs. 
  • Enlist help. Alliances with private entities should be sought. Volunteers might be mobilized  to assume tasks that do not involve security. Obviously King’s is not the only county jail ravaged by the Covid epidemic so seek state aid.

To be sure, the health and welfare of jail inmates is not a politically popular cause. But combating despair and infusing humanity are ideals that cannot be abandoned.

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Abe Bergman is professor emeritus in pediatrics at the University of Washington

4 COMMENTS

  1. Dow and the Council are beholden to an ideology that wants to close prisons & jails, not spend more money to allow them to function better & more humanely. The worse prisons & jails are, the easier it is to make the case they should be abolished. King County & Seattle have passed up on many opportunities to improve conditions.

    https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/editorials/high-utilizers-of-jail-need-better-options/

    “‘We really need to work with the jail to create meaningful interventions and meaningful re-entry plans,’ said Lindsay. ‘How can we get better services for this population in the jail?’

    To reduce recidivism and improve conditions for those released from jail, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in 2019 four pilot projects, including a new treatment center and services and case management upon release. None of the programs were implemented.

    A King County initiative launched in 2013 called “Familiar Faces” sought better outcomes for high utilizers of the jail who have physical and behavioral health issues. It is now inactive.

    A pilot project highlighted on the Familiar Faces website called Jail Release Planning Coordination allowed health workers to enter jails and conduct release planning and transitional-care services. It is not currently in King County jails.”

  2. Like with other issues our elected are GREAT TALKERS – NOT DOERS. They are not paid to be efficient. Maybe, rather than electing all the council members, they be replaced by employees who retain their jobs based on ability rather than charisma. Not uniquely our city/county is run by special interest groups………… No change is on the horizon.

  3. The answer to most of Seattle’s social problems…. drug abuse, rising crime, homelessness, the over crowded jail is…. build a damn insane asylum.

    Take the population of greater Seattle and do a little basic math and King Country needs a place to lock up 2 thousand people who are having some sort of mental health crisis at any given time. Add 4 thousand beds at group homes and assisted living for aftercare.

    But it’s the same old story. Seattle (and K.C.) will never pay up.

  4. First rate overview and thoughtful responses worthy of consideration by County Executive and Council members. Thanks for this, particularly from the father of an inmate.

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