By Erica C. Barnett
A King County Council committee tentatively moved forward on an agreement to move up to 150 men currently incarcerated at the downtown King County Correctional Facility to the South Correctional Entity (SCORE), a jail owned jointly by six south King County cities. The contract, which will cost the county around $3.5 million over two years, is supposed to “help King County mitigate the impact of the unprecedented levels of employee vacancies on staff in the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention,” according to a letter from King County Executive Dow Constantine that accompanied the legislation. Under the agreement, DAJD would initially transfer about 50 men to SCORE starting in April.
PubliCola first reported on the county’s decision to fund the SCORE contract last year.
The county council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee moved the agreement forward without recommendation, citing the need to balance concerns raised by attorneys who represent incarcerated people with the abbreviated timeline laid out by Constantine and the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, which runs the jail. The council plans to work out the details over the next two to three weeks and adopt the agreement by the end of March.
The union that represents employees at King County’s Department of Public Defense, SEIU 925, believes the proposed agreement fails to address their concerns that moving defendants to SCORE will impede attorneys’ access to their clients and put them at a disadvantage during court proceedings; the union sent a letter to the council laying out their concerns with the contract last night.
Currently, SCORE only allows inmates to access court hearings virtually, and has just one booth where attorneys can talk to their clients and pass documents back and forth, along with several booths where one member of an inmate’s defense team (which might include investigators, paralegals, and mitigation specialists) can communicate with them at a time.
“We frequently have to get documents signed; we frequently have to work through documentation; we frequently need interpreters. Trying to do this over video will be impossible.”—Department of Public Defense union president Molly Gilbert
SCORE also has video visitation booths where visitors can speak with incarcerated people virtually; the jail, unlike those operated by King County, has no in-person visitation.
“Once you get above the misdemeanor level and start talking about felonies, you’re talking about really convoluted court hearings and legal concepts that are difficult to explain,” DPD union president Molly Gilbert told PubliCola. “We frequently have to get documents signed; we frequently have to work through documentation; we frequently need interpreters. Trying to do this over video will be impossible.”
Last November, the union filed a demand to bargain over the proposal to move inmates to SCORE, arguing that the agreement creates changes to their members’ working conditions; the county has not agreed to negotiate with the union.
“I don’t want to be an alarmist here, but we are at a critical stage. Delaying simply creates one more day, one more moment where the opportunities for people in our custody won’t get met.”—Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director Allen Nance
At Tuesday’s meeting, interim DAJD administrative division director Diana Joy said SCORE had assured the department that it would transfer defendants to court and that attorneys as well as other DPD staff, such as investigators and paralegals, will have direct access to clients.
However, the contract itself says only that “SCORE will provide a minimum of one transport to a King County designated facility every twelve hours for King County inmates newly booked at SCORE or housed at SCORE and requested by King County to be returned.” It says almost nothing about defendants’ access to attorneys and others working on their cases; the sole reference to these rights in the contract is a line stipulating that “confidential telephones or visitation rooms shall be available to a Contract Agency Inmate to communicate with his or her legal counsel.
At Tuesday’s meeting, DAJD director Allen Nance said it was important for the county to move forward on the contract quickly because conditions at the jail have continued to deteriorate amid an ongoing staffing shortage.
“I don’t want to be an alarmist here,” Nance said, “but we are at a critical stage … Delaying simply creates one more day, one more moment where the opportunities for people in our custody won’t get met.”
Understaffing at the jail reached unprecedented levels during the pandemic, as the jail struggled to hire and retain applicants for high-stress jobs that pay less than other law enforcement positions and lately have required frequent mandatory overtime. Currently, according to King County Corrections Guild president Dennis Folk, the jail is 111 guards short of its staffing target—an improvement since last year, when the shortage reached 129 absent guards.
“This is [DAJD’s] way of trying to decrease our numbers [of people] that are in custody, which ultimately results in us having less posts that we need to fill,” Folk said. Removing 50 people from the jail, for example, could eliminate the need to staff one floor of the jail, for example. “I don’t think it will make that big of a dent, but they seem to think it will.”
Guard shortages, combined with a dramatic increase in the number of people housed at the downtown jail, have led to untenable and sometimes dangerous conditions in the jail. In February, the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that conditions at the jail violate an agreement known as the Hammer settlement, which requires the jail to meet minimal health and safety standards, including adequate access to behavioral and physical health care.
The contract says the inmates who will be transferred to SCORE will be men accused of Class C and “non-violent B level” felonies, such as burglary, auto theft, and stalking. “SCORE would not be used for people doing service work in King County jails, who have frequent court appearances, or who have significant medical or mental health needs,” the agreement says. Gilbert says a stable group of inmates without “frequent court appearances” doesn’t really exist; everyone in the jail, except people waiting to go to Western State Hospital for competency evaluations, has to appear in court. “We don’t understand what population it is they’re talking about,” she said.
“Yes, it’s challenging, yes, there are tradeoffs, but I think we owe it to the folks who are trying to make the best of a very dangerous situation, to take up their request … and give the best answer we can within the timeline they have asked for.”—King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci
King County Councilmember and committee chair Girmay Zahilay said Tuesday that while “on the one hand, we want to be able to relieve pressure on… the downtown jail,” which is facing “crisis” conditions, “on the other hand, we’ve heard some some downsides,” including the need for defense attorneys to travel to a third jail, on top of the downtown jail and the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent (which has suspended new bookings) , in order to meet with clients.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who worked for DAJD for 15 years and directed the department from 2011 to early 2014, countered that both DPD and the jail itself have asked the county to do something to improve conditions inside the facility. “So yes, it’s challenging, yes, there are tradeoffs, but I think we owe it to the folks who are trying to make the best of a very dangerous situation, to take up their request … and give an answer the best answer we can within the timeline they have asked for.”
Folk, from the jail guards’ union, said that once the jail has 473 guards on staff—the point at which guards who volunteer for extra shifts are no longer eligible for overtime pay at 2.5 times their regular wages—”I want that contract canceled.” Hiring more than 100 new guards presents challenges that go beyond recruitment. One issue, Folk said, is that many new recruits can’t pass the state law enforcement academy’s physical fitness test; in a recent batch of 13 new guards, he said, “over half failed” and had to be let go. Still, he said, the jail has 19 new hires coming on board this month.
In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged to close the downtown jail “in phases” after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the intervening years, the county’s overall jail population has rebounded, reaching about 1,600 (compared to a pre-pandemic average of around 1,900) last year.