In a Sign of Worsening Conditions, Understaffed King County Jail Has Lacked Water for a Week

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Jail in downtown Seattle has lacked potable water since Thursday, September 29, and people incarcerated at the jail have been relying on bottled water for the past week, PubliCola has confirmed.

According to a spokesman for the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD), the county “has had the tap water in the jail tested multiple times in multiple locations, and all tests have indicated that the water meets EPA standards for drinking water. However, since the water is still cloudy, we are providing bottled water for drinking and cooking purposes.” The jail has “ample supplies of bottled water,” the spokesman said.

According to the president of the King County Corrections Guild, Dennis Folk, inmates are allowed one bottle of water at a time and can trade in empties for new bottles. This restriction, Folk said, makes it less likely that people will melt the plastic bottles to turn them into weapons or fill them with urine or feces to fling at guards or other inmates.

However, it’s unclear how frequently people inside the jail are actually getting access to water.

“What we are hearing is that there is rationing of water and people are having to choose between hydration or hygiene, and there just isn’t enough water available,” the president of the public defense union (SEIU 925), Molly Gilbert, said.

A spokesman for the jail said there is no rationing and that DADJ offers water “at every meal, periodically throughout the day, during medication delivery, and per request of jail residents.”

PubliCola reported the news exclusively on Twitter Thursday morning.

According to an email from King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) director Allen Nance to the King County Department of Public Defense, the department became aware of “complaints related to water quality” last week (according to Folk, the water coming out of the taps was brown). “We immediately implemented bottled water for all persons in custody and staff out of an abundance of caution,” Nance wrote.

“We have women in the jail who are having their period and they’re unable to get a change of underwear for the week,” Gilbert said. “It’s inhumane, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s a clear liability for the county.”—Molly Gilbert, SEIU 925, King County Public Defense Chapter

Water testing found high “turbidity,” or cloudiness—basically, foreign particles in water that can indicate the presence of disease-causing microbes—and the water has remained off since then while the county has tried to figure out the source of the problem. In his email, Nance said the brown water may have resulted from faulty screens on the water heaters at the jail. According to the DAJD spokesman, the county has sent samples of the water for testing and expects to get the results back tomorrow.

The ongoing water shutoff is just the most recent example of ongoing problems at the jail that have severely limited residents’ access to medical care, attorneys, and time outside their cells. In a survey conducted by the ACLU of Washington in late September, public defenders reported that their clients often lacked access to basic medical care, such as treatment for injuries and dental care, and medication, including everything from insulin to psychiatric meds. When there aren’t enough guards on duty, Gilbert said, escorts for the jail nurses who hand out medication are often the first thing to go. Responding to Gilbert’s statements, the jail spokesman said there are “few if any instances when medication passes would be affected by corrections officer staffing” and that the jail delivers medication even during staffing shortages.

Most of the ongoing issues at the jail stem directly from a worsening staffing shortage, combined with a growing population as the county books more people on misdemeanor charges and transfers inmates from the Regional Justice Center in Kent, whose setup requires more guards per incarcerated person. In recent months, staffing shortages at the jail have led to frequent lockdowns, in which people are locked in their cells 23 hours a day, and defense attorneys report waiting hours to meet with clients, who have to be escorted to meeting areas by guards who are in short supply.

In January, the unions for the public defenders and jail guards joined forces to ask county officials to reduce the population at the downtown jail. Although that request was in response to COVID outbreaks, the staffing shortages that were at issue back then have only worsened in the intervening months.

“We have women in the jail who are having their period and they’re unable to get a change of underwear for the week,” Gilbert said. “It’s inhumane, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s a clear liability for the county.” The jail spokesman disputes this and says jail inmates regularly receive fresh clothes regularly, and can get clean underwear whenever they want.

King County offers hiring bonuses for guards at both the adult and youth detention centers, but hiring hasn’t kept up with attrition as guards burn out and leave. Booking fewer people into the jail would be one solution—about half the people in the downtown jail are booked for three days or less—but that idea is politically unpopular at a time when perceptions of crime have increased. One candidate for King County Prosecutor, Federal Way mayor Jim Ferrell, recently signed on to an “open letter”  from eight South King County mayors calling for more felony bookings and “incarceration to ensure… public safety.”

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