Isolation, Crowding In Youth Jail Increase As Deadline For Closure Looms

Graph showing the growing number of youth isolated for conditions unrelated to behaviorBy Erica C. Barnett

King County’s juvenile detention center is confining more young people, and keeping them isolated in their cells more often, than at any point since early 2019, a report from the independent team monitoring the county’s compliance with a law restricting the use of solitary confinement at the youth jail concluded.

The team, represented by consultant (and former Seattle Office of Police Accountability director) Kathryn Olson, presented its findings for the first quarter of 2022 to the King County Council’s law and justice committee Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, there were about 42 young people incarcerated at the county’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) in Seattle—a dramatic increase since last year, when King County Executive touted an average daily population of just 15 as he announced steps the county was taking toward emptying and closing the youth jail by 2025.

Most—38—of those incarcerated at the youth jail are facing juvenile charges for serious crimes, including robbery, kidnapping, assault, and rape; four are youth facing charges as adults.

At the same time, the CFJC—like the two adult jails—is dramatically understaffed, with about a quarter of juvenile detention officer positions unfilled. The county is offering bonuses of up to $15,000 for guards, and several other positions are vacant, including two nurse positions, according to a government jobs board.

According to the report, this combination of crowding and understaffing has contributed to an uptick in fights between incarcerated kids and assaults on staff; this, in turn, has led to more instances of “restrictive housing”—solitary confinement—which is supposed to be limited to no more than four hours at a time.

In addition to restrictive housing in response to behavioral issues, kids are often being confined in their rooms for hours—in some cases, for the majority of the day—for no reason other than that there aren’t enough staff to monitor them. Records from the county show more than 150 instances in both June and July in which young people were held in their cells for more than 18 hours a day, including the 12 overnight hours allowed for sleep—significantly longer than the four-hour maximum imposed by county law. According to a council staff report, this kind of confinement does “not constitute ‘solitary confinement’ under county code or state law, and therefore is permitted.” 

Committee chair Girmay Zahilay said it was “shocking” that locking kids in their rooms because of understaffing doesn’t count as solitary confinement, because “experientially, it’s the same thing…. what are the universe of resources that we need to address this issue [to create] clearly defined plan to get from where we are, which is an alarming situation to where we should be, which is healthy youth?”

Understaffing in youth detention is also impacting detainees’ ability to go to class. According to the report, “youth at CFJC who were recently interviewed complained that due to reoccurring staff shortages, they frequently have missed most classes on a regularly scheduled school day.”

“Until staffing shortages are resolved, until other employment issues that are impacting some of the programming services are resolved… we’re just going to continue to see some of these issues,” Olson said.

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