By Paul Kiefer
As the recent COVID-19 outbreak in King County jails subsides, a new report by the King County Auditor’s Office has highlighted an array of other concerns about safety and racial disparities in the county’s two adult detention facilities. Among the reasons for concern: Black and Indigenous women in King County jails spend more time in restrictive custody than the average for all female prisoners, and the death rate for inmates exceeds the national average.
The report, which auditor Kymber Waltmunson and her staff presented to the county council on Tuesday, recommended that the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention take steps to suicide-proof cells, expand psychiatric care for inmates, reduce the number of inmates per cell, and limit opportunities for jail staff to discriminate against Black and Indigenous inmates through housing assignments and behavioral sanctions, among other suggestions.
Inmates in King County jails die at a higher rate than the national average—in 2020, for instance, five inmates died in the county’s custody.
On some fronts, the auditor’s report showed signs of improvement at King County jails. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several county departments—including courts and the county prosecutor’s office—have collaborated to reduce the county’s day-to-day inmate population by tightening the criteria for detention.
The results are clear: in 2020, the county’s average daily inmate population fell from roughly 1,900 at the start of the year to roughly 1,300 by the year’s end. At the larger, higher-security jail in downtown Seattle, the declining inmate population allowed jail administrators to distribute the remaining inmates across now-empty cells.
According to the auditor, reducing the number of inmates sharing a cell spurred a dramatic drop in the number of fights and assaults in the downtown jail: While the facility’s population fell by 47 percent in 2020, violent incidents fell by roughly 63 percent.
At the lower-security Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, the reduction in violence was less pronounced, and smaller than the decrease in the jail’s population. That facility, which holds fewer inmates than the downtown jail, holds fewer inmates and rarely places two people in the same cell—a practice known as “double-bunking.” As a result, and because of the types of inmates held in Kent, the facility sees far less violence in a typical year than the jail in downtown Seattle.
But Brooke Leary, the Law Enforcement Audit Manager for the county auditor’s office, cautioned the council that the decline in violence—including fights, attacks on inmates and attacks on staff—could reverse if the county abandons its pandemic-era efforts to reduce the inmate population, or if the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) follows through on King County Executive Dow Constantine’s plan to close down a floor of the downtown jail by 2022.
In their report, the county’s auditing team recommended that jail administrators work with prosecutors and courts to ensure that the inmate population continues to fall to avoid a future increase in “double-bunking” and an associated uptick in violence.
In his response to the recommendations, DAJD Director (and former Seattle police chief) John Diaz rebuffed the auditor’s suggestion that his department should prioritize providing each inmate their own cell.
In an email, DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund explained Diaz’s reasoning, telling PubliCola that the jail population may increase as the pandemic comes to a close, which “would require some level of double-bunking to maintain efficient staffing.” To both close a floor of the jail and provide each inmate their own cell, Haglund said, the jail’s population would need to be “less than the lowest population we experienced during the booking restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The auditor’s report also pointed to glaring racial disparities in the county’s use of high-security detention and punishments for inmates who violate jail rules—disparities that haven’t abated during the pandemic. According to the report, while the county’s inmate population is 36 percent Black and 56 percent white, the demographics of the highest-security units in the county’s jails are nearly reversed: 50 percent Black and 43 percent white.
Part of the disparity, Leary argued, can be traced to biased jail administrators, who assign inmates to higher-security units based on assessments of their behavior and attitude—which Leary called an “inherently subjective judgement”—and their criminal history. Leary added that Black inmates are more likely to have a record of arrests for minor crimes because of biased policing, which tips the scales against Black inmates during the assessment of their criminal history.
The auditor’s report also showed that Black and Indigenous inmates face more frequent and longer punishments by jail administrators. Indigenous women spend 18 percent more time in “restrictive housing”—isolated, high-security units used to punish inmates for rule violations—than the average female inmate; the disparity is even more stark for Black women, who spend 70 percent more time in restrictive housing than the average female inmate. Part of the disparity, Leary told the council, is in the hands of jail administrators, who choose the length of an inmate’s stay in restrictive housing from within a range.
Diaz rejected the auditor’s suggestion that the DAJD should give its staff clearer guidance about how to choose the length of an inmate’s punishment or remove the staff’s say in the length of the punishment altogether, arguing that neither a county council-appointed monitor nor an outside legal aid group that tracks the use of restrictive detention in county jails has seen any cause for concern. During her presentation to council, Leary countered, telling council members that “the risk remains that two people written up for the same rule violation could be sanctioned for different numbers of days depending on the judgement of staff.”
Grant Dailey, another member of the auditing team, highlighted shortcomings in the county’s response to inmate deaths and rising demand for psychiatric care. Many of the problems he identified have to do with the jail buildings themselves: The wing of the downtown jail outfitted for inmates in psychiatric crisis is consistently at capacity, and the jail in Kent has even fewer spaces available for inmates in crisis. When the specialized cells at the downtown facility—designed to prevent suicide by eliminating tie-off points for nooses and sharp edges—are full, inmates in mental health crisis are placed in “overflow” cells alongside the jail’s general population, where their access to mental health care is more limited.
According to Dailey, the decline in the jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t resolved the problem: the downtown jail still holds 11 people in overflow cells on an average night, down from 18 per night in the preceding three years.
Meanwhile, inmates in King County jails die at a higher rate than the national average—in 2020, for instance, five inmates died in the county’s custody. Roughly a third of inmate deaths in the past half-decade were linked to opioid withdrawal or opioid, methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses; the auditor’s report recommended that DAJD train its staff to respond more effectively to inmates experiencing withdrawal and overdoses.
Another quarter of inmate deaths were suicides, all of which happened in restrictive housing units and standard cells, including overflow cells—not in the cells designed to prevent suicides. The auditing team’s recommendations included a suggestion that DAJD retrofit more cells, particularly in the restrictive housing units, to prevent suicides.
Though Diaz expressed his support for most of the auditor’s recommendations—including those related to suicides and drug-related deaths—the county’s auditing team did not offer any optimism to the council about the prospects for meaningful changes in county jails. In a letter shared with the council before Tuesday’s meeting, the auditing team criticized Diaz for accepting their suggestions “without indicating that [he] plans to change current practices,” and for “misinterpreting” the recommendations he rejected.