King County Plans to Move Up to 150 Inmates to Address Capacity Issues at Downtown Jail

By Erica C. Barnett

Earlier this year, King County Executive Dow Constantine quietly added $3.5 million to the county’s budget for “potential contracted services to address jail capacity issues”—a reference to understaffing at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, which is currently facing a shortage of about 120 officers. Despite offering bonuses of up to $15,000, the county Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) has found it challenging to hire and retain jail guards, thanks in large part to long shifts and poor working conditions; the more guards leave, the worse the problem becomes.

Last month, DAJD director Allen Nance provided more details about what that $3.5 million would pay for. In a memo to all DAJD staff, Nance explained that the department is “pursuing a contract with the South Correctional Entity (SCORE),” a misdemeanor jail in Des Moines, to house some of the 1,250 or so people currently incarcerated at the downtown Seattle jail. SCORE is a public development authority, a type of government-funded nonprofit, that was established to provide jail services to seven South King County cities. The department plans to start in January by moving about 50 people to the jail about 15 miles south of Seattle, a number that could grow to 150 later on. SCORE, which provides jail services for six south King County cities, has a capacity of 802.

“The partnership with SCORE is being piloted to see if it might ease the workload on our staff and prevent a need to expand booking at the [Maleng Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent], given the Department’s limited resources and our current reliance on overtime to cover shifts,” Nance continued. About 260 people are currently incarcerated at the RJC, which is only accepting bookings by appointment. “At the same time, we will continue to explore other strategies to run our two jails more efficiently.”

Noah Haglund, a spokesman for DAJD, said that “if we finalize an agreement with SCORE, we would prioritize people with extended time between court dates or those who are serving jail sentences.” King County’s jails would “continue to house people with greater medical needs and those deemed to pose a higher security risk,” he said.

Most of those housed in the downtown jail face felony charges; about 9 percent have been charged with misdemeanors. Although SCORE is currently a misdemeanor jail, its director, Devon Schrum, said the facility is “constructed and staffed to hold any classification of arrestee, including those accused of felony-level offenses.”

Defense attorneys and the jail guards’ union—odd bedfellows that have increasingly found themselves on the same side of issues related to crowding and understaffing at the jail—oppose the move. “We’re already facing a staffing crisis,” said Dennis Folk, head of the King County Corrections Guild. “Let’s say we’re housing 50 or 100 inmates down there, and now they need to go to the hospital—who’s going to be responsible for taking them? How are they supposed to get to the court if that work falls back on us?”

Haglund said the department has not worked out an agreement with SCORE to transport residents from Des Moines to Seattle; according to a rate sheet provided by Schrum, the jail charges $75 an hour for transportation by an officer.

The union that represents King County Department of Public Defense employees, SEIU 925, has similar concerns. Molly Gilbert, the the president of the SEIU 925 chapter that represents DPD staffers, said SCORE’s location and hours of operation could make it hard for attorneys to meet with clients and for clients to get to the downtown Seattle courthouse for in-person hearings. Bonnie Linville, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services,

In a recent survey of public defenders, many attorneys said moving downtown jail inmates to SCORE would make it more challenging for them to manage their caseloads, because they would have to drive between three jails instead of two; others, however, said SCORE has more reliable video visitation than either King County jail. The union has filed a demand to bargain over the change—the first time the union has ever moved to challenge a management decision through bargaining outside the regular contract negotiation process, Gilbert said.

Schrum says SCORE —unlike the King County system—is fully staffed and has had little trouble recruiting “highly trained” guards and staff. But some who oppose relocating inmates point to previous evidence of poor conditions at the jail, including a highly publicized 2018 case in which a woman experiencing a mental health crisis died in her cell later spending four days consuming huge amounts of water.

In 2016, Disability Rights Washington’s AVID (Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities) Jail Project released a report outlining significant problems with SCORE’s treatment of inmates with mental illness, including excessive use of solitary confinement and lack of access to psychiatric care. The report also outlined steps SCORE had taken to address some of the issues AVID raised; a spokesman for DRW said he could not speak to current conditions in the jail.

Many advocates say relocating 50 (or even 150) people from the downtown jail to SCORE will do little to address deteriorating conditions in the jail. For months, people in the jail have limited access to medical care, showers, laundry, and recreation outside their cells.

“There are requirements that people be provided adequate medical and mental health care, be taken to outside medical appointments and be allowed a certain amount of out of cell time per day and it is clear that the jail is not meeting those requirements. Pursuant to the Hammer settlement agreement, the jail is required to meet certain benchmarks regarding each of these issues.”—La Rond Baker, legal director, ACLU of Washington

“We’re hearing routinely from folks that they’re sending [requests for physical or mental health care] that aren’t getting answered, or the answer is, ‘sorry, we’re understaffed,'” said Bonnie Linville, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, which provides legal aid to low-income clients. “We’re also hearing about fewer transfers and delays in transferring people to Harborview [Medical Center] for necessary care, which is really concerning.” Suicide has become such a problem in the jail that the department has removed bedsheets from all cells. The county’s 2023-2024 budget includes $1 million for “jump protection panels” at the jail.

With conditions inside the jail at a breaking point, advocates say the county may be in violation of an agreement it signed almost 25 years ago called the Hammer settlement. In 1988, the ACLU of Washington represented a man named Calvin Hammer who said he was denied medical care after an assault at the jail left him with a badly fractured skull. Eventually, the ACLU and King County reached a settlement that required the county to increase staffing and improve conditions at the downtown jail. Now, the ACLU believes the county may be in violation of the Hammer settlement, and could challenge the county’s compliance with the agreement.

La Rond Baker, the legal director for the ACLU-WA, declined to get into the details of any potential legal challenge. However, she said, “many of the conditions at the jail show that the jail is out of compliance with the Hammer settlement.” For example, “there are requirements that people be provided adequate medical and mental health care, be taken to outside medical appointments and be allowed a certain amount of out of cell time per day and it is clear that the jail is not meeting those requirements. … Pursuant to the Hammer settlement agreement, the jail is required to meet certain benchmarks regarding each of these issues.”

The original Hammer settlement required the county to reduce the number of people incarcerated at the downtown jail to just under 1,700. Today, the jail holds between 1,200 and 1,300 people, a number advocates say is both unsustainable and unnecessary. On any given day, according to the county’s jail dashboard, between 40 and 50 percent of the people released from jail have been locked up for fewer than three days on various offenses, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.

According to Gilbert, from the public defenders’ union, these “worthless” 72-hour bookings “do nothing for the safety of the community and just destabilize people” whose crimes often stem from poverty, addiction, or mental illness. The jail still books people for nonviolent felonies, domestic violence charges, and DUIs. (The last two are required by state law.) Although DUIs often elicit a “visceral” reaction, Gilbert noted in a conversation with PubliCola earlier this year, the reality is that it takes months to process toxicology tests, so “frequently [the courts] can’t do anything about DUIs anyway.”

Overall, about a quarter of the people in the downtown county jail have been there for less than 30 days. “These are, for the most part, people who are just being accused” of a crime, CLS attorney Jonathan Nomamiukor said—”many of whom are only there because they couldn’t pay bail. It’s basically a debtor’s prison.”

The DAJD has not finalized an agreement with SCORE. PubliCola sent a list of questions to County Executive Constantine’s office last Wednesday, and will update this post if we receive a response.

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