By Paul Kiefer
An overwhelming surge of COVID-19 infections among staff and inmates at King County jails has spurred a rare alliance between the unions representing the county’s correctional officers and public defenders, which sent a joint letter to elected officials in Seattle and King County on Friday asking for an immediate intervention to reduce the jail’s population and stem the spread of the virus.
“COVID-19 should not be a death sentence for anyone held in a jail or anyone working in a jail,” the unions wrote. “The stark reality is that if no changes are made, people will continue to get sick and continue to suffer.”
The two labor organizations typically represent opposite perspectives in the criminal legal system, a tension they acknowledged in their letter as a sign of the dire need for emergency actions. To reduce the jails’ populations, the unions pushed the county to immediately stop booking people into jail for non-violent offenses, to stop issuing warrants for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses, and to “make plans for the immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.” The unions also pressed county officials to prioritize improving staffing and workplace safety at the jail.
The jails face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.
In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has expressed its openness to moving more inmates to electronic home monitoring to reduce crowding, though many of the people held in jail under the prosecutor’s purview are charged with violent offenses. Meanwhile, new Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has expressed her intentions to more aggressively pursue misdemeanor prosecutions of “quality of life” crimes like shoplifting and carrying a concealed firearm without a permit—a plan that could be at cross purposes with the unions’ push to reduce the jail population.
As of Friday afternoon, 197 of the 1,388 people held in King County jails had tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 288 people were in quarantine. That total has risen astronomically since the start of the new year: the number of infections in King County jails was in the single digits for months until the last week of December. The jails also face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.
According to King County Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesman Noah Haglund, the scale of the outbreak overwhelmed the space and staffing limitations of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the county has housed COVID-positive inmates for most of the pandemic. DAJD is now also housing COVID-positive inmates at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, and it has limited out-of-cell time for anyone in quarantine to 30 minutes or less per day. People in quarantine at the downtown Seattle jail, Haglund added, are likely to have more out-of-cell time because of the layout of the housing units. At both facilities, the DAJD has provided radios and games to people in quarantine.
“Corrections officers are sleeping in the jail because they can’t get home between a double shift and the next one. [Incarcerated workers] aren’t able to work so there is a serious lack of access to fresh meals, timely laundry and commissary to obtain basic supplies,” the unions wrote. “Incarcerated people are being kept in conditions analogous to solitary confinement, with little time outside of their cells.” The unions also noted that the outbreak and staffing shortage have reduced in-person access to attorneys and created delays for nurses delivering medicine.
Because the jails’ kitchens depend on incarcerated workers, Haglund said that the downtown jail had to “restructure kitchen operations” for three days in January as workers went into quarantine, though the jail did not turn to outside vendors to provide meals during that time. Haglund also noted that the jails have tripled their capacity to connect attorneys to their clients over Zoom in the past two weeks.
The new surge comes less than a month after King County reached a new benchmark in its efforts to provide vaccines to people in custody: in late December, the vaccination rate in King County jails surpassed 60% for the first time since DAJD began its vaccination campaign in March. Because of the high turnover—the average inmate spends just over a month in jail—it has been a challenge for healthcare staff to keep pace with the county’s overall vaccination rate, which recently passed 75 percent. The vaccination rate behind bars hovered around 50 percent for much of the summer.