Op-Ed: Open Letter to King County Council

by the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Solidarity Network (Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group, Creative Justice, No New Youth Jail, Pacific Rim Solidarity Network)


We are a coalition of community members, non-profit organizations, criminal legal systems reform advocates, and abolitionists. We are writing to express our grave concerns regarding the continued confinement of the 2000 adults and 40 youth community members in the King County Jail (KJC), the Kent Regional Justice Center (RJC) and the King County Juvenile Detention.

Current Situation

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. King County is ground zero of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, with more confirmed cases and deaths than any other jurisdiction. Recent events related to Covid-19 in the jails have been outrageous. As of now, the emergency measures taken by the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention are lacking and insufficient.

  • The public was notified on March 17, 2020 that a King County Corrections Officer who had been asymptomatic was later found positive for COVID 19.
  • The health screening criteria for jail admissions is limited to an individual’s temperature. Given that this virus has up to a two week asymptomatic incubation period, an individual’s temperature does not rule someone out for being a carrier. King County’s emergency measures do not include actual measures at ensuring social distancing and access to frequent handwashing or hand sanitizers. These are basic measures advised by public health authorities.
  • We recently learned of the death of a 60 year old individual at RJC. We urge the DAJD to release the cause of death immediately. A death at the facility in this time causes immense uncertainty, anxiety and fear among our incarcerated communities and loved ones out here.
  • We were made aware that individuals previously incarcerated at KCJ who are deemed most vulnerable and/or over the age of 60 with comorbidities and immunocompromised health, had been transferred to a housing unit at RJC. This appears to have been a public health intervention. With a recent death allegedly in the same unit, this transfer seems worrisome. We would like for DAJD to provide the criteria and public health rationales for such a transfer.
  • Visitation has been cancelled for youth in detention. Connection with family and community is crucial for the mental and emotional well being of incarcerated youth. Detention itself is already a form of trauma that youth have to endure, that is further aggravated by isolation from loved ones and family in this moment.
  • The lack of transparency from county and jail officials regarding the conditions of incarcerated individuals, and measures taken to reduce transmission, are devastating and fear-inducing for our communities.

Governor Inslee has declared a state of emergency and prohibited all gatherings of over 50 people in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Does this prohibition not apply to those who are incarcerated in King County as well? The jail cannot be managed in a way that enables the kind of social distancing that this public health crisis requires.

Precedents

Other jails in the US have already taken steps. In New York, the Board of Corrections called for all New York City jails to release those who are at high risk from coronavirus and to limit new bookings. In San Diego county, the sheriff’s office is already in the process of releasing individuals from jail to open up quarantine bed spaces and prevent the spread of disease. Similarly in Los Angeles County, authorities have reduced jail population by 600 within two weeks. In Iran, 85,000 incarcerated individuals were released in an emergency to stop the spread of the virus.

King County, as the center of the epidemic, must take immediate action to minimize the spread of disease and respect the human lives in confinement. The crisis is only escalating.

  1. On March 18th, the Washington State Supreme Court passed an order related to statewide emergency measures in Washington state courts that effectively suspends all court operations with the exception of release hearings. We call on your administration to ensure that King County Superior Court and King County Juvenile Court adhere to the Supreme Court ruling.
  2. Release all people incarcerated in King County. We demand full release so as to eliminate the possibility of unintended collateral consequences during this unprecedented pandemic. The precedents taken in New York and San Diego county, where individuals charged with non-violent offenses are being released, is the minimum we expect from your administration.
  3. Immediately release all who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. While we expect all people to be released, people with the following vulnerabilities must be prioritized: respiratory disease; 60+ years old; pregnancy; immunosuppression or compromised immune systems.
  4. Immediately release youth in the King County Juvenile Detention. Isolation and de-facto solitary when quarantined, and a lack of access to family members can cause insurmountable hardship for youth in this moment of uncertainty and crisis. Youth should be with familiar caregivers and community that can support them in their mental, emotional and physical well being, especially in this moment.
  5. No new bookings into the King County Jail or Kent Regional Justice Center.
  6. Make plans to provide post-release housing to those who are released but are housing unstable. King County was able to find and purchase motels at a moment’s notice for quarantine. This shows us that when the need is great enough King County has the power to provide emergency housing for those in need.
  7. A daily update about confirmed and pending COVID 19 cases in facilities.
  8. Release a “State of King County Jails and Courts” summary, that includes information about how social distancing and good hygiene practices and recommendations of moratorium on 50 people gathering or more are being observed. Update these memos weekly showing County progress (or lack thereof) to protect people who are incarcerated.
  9. Free access to testing without any medical copay for incarcerated individuals.
  10. Significantly strengthen the King County Juvenile Detention Intake Criteria to restrict and limit any new bookings into the juvenile detention center.

Act now. We need compassionate systems, level public health interventions in our courts and jails now. The only real public health response that exists that protects all of our community members who are incarcerated and court-involved is freeing all people from our jails and stopping unnecessary court operations as specified above.

You have an opportunity right now to redefine public safety and prevent our residents from dying.

Due to the urgency of the issue at hand, we expect a prompt response from you by Friday March 20th 12pm.

Sincerely,

COVID-19 Mutual Aid

APICAG (Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group)

Creative Justice

No New Youth Jail

PARISOL (Pacific Rim Solidarity Network)

 

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