Photo depicting protestors gathered outside the King County Jail. A banner above the group reads, "Shut down the deadly King County Jail."

ACLU-WA, Director of Public Defense Call Out Conditions in King County Jail

by Alison Jean Smith

On Feb. 27, dozens gathered outside the King County Jail in Seattle, wielding signs with slogans like “Care Not Cages” and “Dow, Keep Your Promise.” In the summer of 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine did indeed pledge to close the jail, calling it “decrepit.” Since then, conditions have worsened. In 2022 alone, six people died in the jail, or after being moved from the jail to a hospital, more than in years prior. Four of those deaths were suicides, putting King County well above the national average. 

The protest outside the jail took place a few days after the ACLU of Washington filed suit against the County, on Feb. 24, for violating the 1998 Hammer v. King County settlement agreement, which set standards for staffing and services. The County cites the pandemic as the chief cause of understaffing. But La Rond Baker, the ACLU-WA’s legal director, says that’s not an excuse.

“You can’t force people to live in unsafe conditions … simply because you’re not able to hire people or because the pandemic threw a curveball into your general approach to running a facility,” said Baker. “It’s not the people who are incarcerated’s fault. And they should not be the ones who shoulder the burden with their lives and their health at risk.”

Exhibit B in the ACLU’s suit is an August 2022 letter from the County detailing problems in the jail. “Do we think the County has remedied many of the problems that were identified in its August letter? The answer to that is no,” said Baker.

Currently, around a fifth of corrections officer positions and jail health services positions are vacant. In response, the County has instituted wage increases, hiring bonuses, enhanced recruitment, and more overtime incentives. In an emailed statement, King County Communications Director Chase Gallagher wrote, “Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the downtown jail has experienced significant operational challenges of testing, quarantining, and vaccinating, and staffing challenges, much like those experienced by other institutions and public sector industries throughout the country.”

During the pandemic, as jails became a breeding ground for COVID-19, the County successfully brought down its two jails population from 1,950 to 1,350. But since then, those numbers have crept back up to pre-pandemic levels. In its August 2022 letter, the County pointed to a perfect storm of three factors: a backlog of cases from the pandemic, fewer releases, and higher crime. Indeed, Seattle reached a 15-year high in violent crime in 2022.

Seattle isn’t alone. Several states, including Georgia, Wisconsin, and Virginia, are struggling with understaffing, and some have reported record suicide rates.

The ACLU links the jail’s suicides with interruptions in mental health treatment. The jail continues to provide emergency care in the event of mental health crises. But it has suspended follow-up for psychiatric clinic visits, as well as preliminary drug addiction appointments. Explained Baker, “When we don’t treat basic, deep underlying mental health issues, the results can be pretty catastrophic. For people who are incarcerated, the suffering of being incarcerated is multiplied by also having significant mental health issues.”

Anita Khandelwal, head of the King County Department of Public Defense, attests to the lasting damage of incarceration. “Every single time a person is booked into jail, they get retraumatized,” she said. “And so they actually come out less well than when they started.”

That includes those found “incompetent” by a judge, meaning they’re too mentally ill to understand the charges against them, says Khandelwal. The jail sends these defendants to a psychiatric hospital to receive medications and take classes on the criminal justice system. Like many states, Washington has a high demand for competency training, leading to long delays. At the Feb. 27 protest, Khandelwal cited the “bathtub burglar” made famous by local news. He had previously been found incompetent, yet was released from a mental hospital with no supports in place, and then was booked into the jail. Jailing people with competency issues is cruel and expensive, says Khandelwal.

“[Competency training] is not ongoing care; it doesn’t connect you to community care after the court case is done,” explained Khandelwal. “It’s just a process designed to help ensure that an individual can be moved through the criminal legal process. It’s not actual treatment; there’s no long-term benefit to it.”

Without sufficient staff to monitor them, inmates in solitary confinement have been denied their one hour per day of “out-of-cell time.” The County has strived to ensure that no inmate loses their out-of-cell time for multiple days in a row. Nonetheless, multiple studies have shown that isolation can exacerbate underlying mental health problems.

Inmates’ physical health has also been compromised. The County has been forced to triage care by suspending certain “optional” treatments and suspending preventative care visits. Its August 2022 letter lists interruptions in care for chronic hepatitis, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions.

“Functionally, the jail is waiting for people to have emergencies before giving them treatment, which is putting people’s health at risk pretty significantly,” said Baker. “But we also know that they’re not transporting people to outside medical appointments that have been deemed medically necessary, which is something even beyond preventative care. That’s medically necessary care to maintain just the base level of health.”

Access to legal services has been spotty, too. As of August 2022, the jail had suspended transportation to weekend court appointments, even though the Hammer agreement promises access to all court appearances. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, however, such transportation now occurs on a regular basis.

Khandelwal says attorneys are having to wait upward of an hour to see clients because there aren’t enough staff to transport them. The jail has purchased cellphones and tablets, but again, there aren’t enough staff to bring those devices to clients.

“It makes it harder for clients to review discovery, to learn about their cases, to build trust with their attorney,” Khandelwal explained. “Every case takes that much longer because there’s so much more waiting to see clients. It undermines our client’s ability to move their cases forward, and burdens our already very overburdened staff.”

Rather than advocating for particular solutions, the ACLU insists the County has the tools and authority to come into compliance with the Hammer agreement. One proposal is to jail fewer people in the first place. The County has continued its March 2020-era policy of not booking most people arrested for misdemeanors unless they pose a threat to public safety. Rather than posting bail, a defendant is given notice to show up for their court date. Seattle’s City Attorney Ann Davison, elected November 2021, introduced a new policy of booking all “high utilizers,” essentially frequent offenders, rather than automatically referring them to Community Court. This policy, too, has come under fire from criminal justice advocates. 

In an April 2022 letter, Davison wrote, “Simply stated, this version of Community Court (with its ‘release-first model,’ voluntary referrals to services, and limited accountability mechanisms) is the wrong place for those committing repeat, high-impact criminal activity.”

Beyond misdemeanors, the ACLU says the jail could also bring its population down by not booking those arrested for non-violent felonies, such as some property theft, forgery, and cyber crimes.

“King County does not control who is booked into the jail or how long they remain in custody,” Gallagher wrote in an emailed statement. “The ACLU’s proposed solution of restricting felony bookings is not the answer. The King County Jail is the custodian of individuals who are arrested by a law enforcement agency. King County has no authority to unilaterally release or refuse to book persons arrested on felony charges.”

Khandelwal has pointed out that Pierce County already has these booking restrictions, and Baker says there’s no law on the books preventing King County from following suit. 

In the 25 years since the Hammer agreement, this is the first time the ACLU has enforced it in court. For those at the Feb. 27 protest, it certainly feels like the jail has reached a crisis point. When organizers began reading out the names of those who have died in the jail since the summer of 2020, the crowd instantly hushed.

“If you can’t hire, then what you have to do is say, ‘Well, the jail can only take so many people,’” said Khandelwal. “The jail can’t act like it’s a rubber band that can just endlessly expand to take in whoever is at the front door — when they can’t staff the jail to make sure that conditions of confinement include good access to medication, good access to your attorney, good access to time outside of your cell.”

Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this article failed to mention that the population numbers given are for both King County jails, and not just the jail in Seattle. Further, the article has been updated to give a time frame for the suspension of transportation to weekend court appointments, and to include the information that, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, such transportation now occurs on a regular basis. The article was updated on March 17, 2023, to correct these oversights.

Alison Jean Smith is a programming intern at Northwest Film Forum, a member of the TeenTix Alumni Advisory Board, and a contributor to REDEFINE, an online magazine where she interviews both emerging and established filmmakers. She has also had her writing published in The Stranger and on the doubleXposure podcast website. She is currently studying communication at the University of Washington.

📸 Featured Image: On Feb. 27, 2023, dozens gathered outside the King County Jail in Seattle, wielding signs with slogans like “Care Not Cages” and “Dow, Keep Your Promise.” (Photo: Alison Jean Smith)

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