By Erica C. Barnett
Less than a week after a King County Council committee tentatively approved plans to move 50 people from the downtown King County jail to the South Correctional Entity, at a cost to the county of $3.5 million, the downtown jail quietly transferred another 50 minimum-security inmates to the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent over the past weekend, emptying out a unit on the downtown jail’s third floor. According to DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund, the majority of the people who are being moved are facing misdemeanor or non-violent felony charges.
The MRJC has suspended most bookings for months because that facility—like the downtown jail—doesn’t have enough staff to book people except by appointment, Haglund said. The 50 people transferred to the Kent jail are being “double-bunked” in a unit that previously housed about 50 people, bringing the total number of people incarcerated in the Kent unit to 104. A single officer will oversee the doubled-up unit, one of the “efficiencies” DAJD director Allen Nance referred to in a memo announcing the move on March 10.
Haglund said the unit has a capacity of 115.
“We base our current staffing on how many individuals in the housing unit are out of their cell at any given time and their classification status,” he said. “One officer can supervise a maximum of 64 people in the dayroom (the “common area” in the unit) at a time; the number of people in the dayroom at any given time will not exceed the maximum levels prior to the recent transfer.” Ideally, Haglund said, “we would prefer a 1:64 ratio for officers to number of people supervised at this facility,” which would require an additional officer, but “there is no single ratio that would apply across all housing units and classification types.”
The King County Corrections Guild President has filed a demand to bargain because of the higher staffing ratio, which union president Dennis Folk says still exceeds the 1:64 ideal. “What they’re saying is, ‘You’re only managing the 40 or 50 that are coming out at one time,’ and we’re like, that’s not the case. We still have all the other people we have to manage” at the same time—people who may need out of their cells for medical care, appointments, and visitation.
“Leadership will be working with staff to develop the safest unit schedules and operational practices. We are committed to increasing the ratio of staff to residents as our staffing improves, but also believe that moving these residents from KCCF to MRJC will improve current living conditions for those in our custody and in turn lower the daily operational challenges for our staff.”—DAJD director Allen Nance
According to Nance, jail “[l]eadership will be working with staff to develop the safest unit schedules and operational practices. We are committed to increasing the ratio of staff to residents as our staffing improves, but also believe that moving these residents from KCCF to MRJC will improve current living conditions for those in our custody and in turn lower the daily operational challenges for our staff.”
The DAJD has struggled to recruit and retain jail guards in its adult and youth jails. told PubliCola the department needs to hire more than 100 net new officers to reach the point where guards no longer receive 2.5 times their regular pay for working voluntary (as opposed to mandatory) overtime shifts. Folk said emptying out the third-floor unit would eliminate the need for one guard.
The downtown jail population, which bottomed out during COVID (when booking restrictions limited the number of people booked for low-level crimes), has rebounded to more than 1,200, without a commensurate uptick in staffing. King County Executive Dow Constantine has pledged to close the downtown jail , but the population has trended in the opposite direction of closure, prompting protests from advocates who argue that the county should stop booking non-violent felonies until the jail can guarantee adequate physical and mental health care and ensure the safety of incarcerated people.
The ACLU of Washington sued King County last month, alleging that conditions at the downtown jail are so bad that they violate a 1998 agreement known as the Hammer settlement, in which the county agreed to address overcrowding and poor medical care, and understaffing at the jail. The DAJD’s recent efforts to transfer people out of the downtown jail are widely viewed as an attempt to come closer to compliance with that settlement.
According to Molly Gilbert, the president of the union that represents the county’s public defenders, moving people to RJC—as opposed to SCORE—could be a positive for defense attorneys, if the people who get moved to Kent are defendants from the area; currently, Department of Public Defense (DPD) attorneys have to travel to downtown Seattle to meet with their Kent-area clients. “However, we have no idea what population they actually moved,” Gilbert added.
Meanwhile, the public defenders’ union is trying to get King County Councilmembers to add an amendment to the legislation approving the contract with SCORE that would spell out DPD’s visitation needs and require a quarterly report on how the contract is going. The full council will take up that legislation, which passed out of committee unanimously, next week.