Tag: King County Jail

Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since the start of 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.

But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.

King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.

The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.

“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH

Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.

For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.

“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.

Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”

For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.

But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”

One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”

But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”

Parents Won’t Have to to Pay Jail Costs for Incarcerated Children; Another Suicide at Downtown Jail Amid Ongoing Staff Shortage

1. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation on Thursday ending the requirement that parents of children in state-run juvenile detention centers pay for a portion of the cost of their child’s incarceration, a practice known as “parent pay.” The new law will also clear the debts of the roughly 240 families who collectively owed $1.1 million in unpaid custody fees to the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which runs Washington’s three juvenile detention facilities. 

DCYF’s 2020-2021 budget assumed that the agency would take in $1.9 million in parent pay revenue over the past two years; Rachel Sottile, the president of the Center for Children and Youth Justice, a children’s rights organization in Seattle, told PubliCola that the agency was able to collect less than a quarter of that figure.

“First of all, DCYF can’t do if its job if it doesn’t have the resources it needs,” she said, “and secondly, parent pay created financial instability for parents that left a lot of youth cycling back into the criminal justice system.” She added that parents who did not pay their debts to DCYF risked facing contempt charges and possible jail time.

In a press release, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter said he supported eliminating parent pay, calling the practice financially impractical and counterproductive. “It probably costs more to collect [fees from parents] than we bring in and may make it less likely for youth to reunify with their families, destabilizing their transition back to the community,” he said.

Along similar lines, the legislature voted this month to allow judges to waive most of the fines and restitution fees imposed on people convicted of crimes; that bill applies retroactively, opening the door for thousands of people who are currently in prison or who previously spent time in prison to petition courts to relieve them of debts that can present a hurdle to successful re-entry.

2. A 25-year-old man died at Harborview Medical Center after hanging himself in a cell at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle last week, marking the third death at the jail since the beginning of the year: an unusually high number for this point in the year, especially given the decline in the jail’s population during the pandemic. The deaths come as the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention continues to lose more corrections officers than it can hire, leaving some officers and other jail staff stretched thin.

Jail staff transferred the man to Harborview Medical Center after a guard found him unresponsive in a cell on March 10; he died from his injuries four days later. Court records indicate he was a trans man; the King County Superior Court referred to him using the last name Kostelak, and according to a source, he may have used the name Damian. Continue reading “Parents Won’t Have to to Pay Jail Costs for Incarcerated Children; Another Suicide at Downtown Jail Amid Ongoing Staff Shortage”

SPD Jails Shoplifters for Thefts as Small as $6.99; Pedersen Unilaterally Installs Bike Board Member; Helmet Law Overturned

1. Seattle police officers took part in a crackdown on retail theft at Target’s downtown Seattle store last week called “Operation New Day,” booking people suspected of shoplifting into the King County jail despite ongoing pandemic-related restrictions that limit booking to people arrested for violent crimes.

On Friday, plainclothes officers from the Seattle Police Department’s Community Response Group, a team that floats between the city’s four precincts to supplement patrol, were working with Target’s loss prevention team to identify people stealing merchandise, flagging them for uniformed officers waiting on the sidewalk outside.

Over the course of the day, officers arrested at least five people. One woman was booked into jail for stealing $6.99 worth of merchandise, while another man was booked for stealing vitamins, baby formula and other merchandise valued at more than $600, according to police reports. Two of the people arrested had previously spent time in the jail in the past year for misdemeanor assault or weapons offenses, among other charges. All of the people arrested on Friday have since been released from jail, though the woman booked for stealing $6.99 worth of merchandise was later charged with assault for hitting a Target employee—a detail not included in the original arrest report.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, King County Executive Dow Constantine limited booking at King County’s jails to people arrested for assaults, DUIs and firearms violations, and other high-priority offenses, with the goal of reducing the county’s jail population to stem the spread of the virus. However, Constantine allowed the jail to make exceptions when agencies that use the jail, including SPD, can argue convincingly that booking people for nonviolent crimes is necessary to protect public safety.

On Thursday, Constantine told PubliCola that the county has received and approved few requests for exceptions.

“Law enforcement agencies have been judicious about making them,” added Noah Haglund, a spokesman for King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. In order to receive an exemption, a law enforcement agency needs to submit a request before bringing arrestees to the jail. According to Haglund, the City of Seattle requested an exemption before booking the people arrested for shoplifting on Friday. Sergeant Randall Huserik, a spokesman for SPD, the bookings are intended to “deter the suspects” from committing crimes in the future.

2. Next week, the city council will vote to appoint Dr. Douglas Migden, a long-distance recreational cyclist who lives in the Queen Anne neighborhood, to the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board. Council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen chose Migden for the board unilaterally after a five-month-long recruitment and nomination process in which the bike board interviewed dozens of candidates and ultimately selected land-use planner Anthony Avery for the seat.

Ryan Packer covered Pedersen’s decision to discard the bike board’s choice for the Seattle Bike Blog last week.

According to SBAB co-chair Sarah Udelhofen, the bike board has three top priorities when choosing new board members. They look for candidates with unique biking experiences (such as family cyclists and newer riders); those who offer “perspective from a community that has been underrepresented in or marginalized by the mainstream bike movement”; and people who are familiar with neighborhoods that are underrepresented on the board or that lack safe bike infrastructure. Historically, the mainstream bike movement has been dominated by white, male recreational cyclists who ride in the road.

“These commissions and boards have processes for how they make appointments. They review applications, do interviews, and so it can be frustrating when the folks that they have chosen through community process are not selected. And I understand why folks might feel demoralized when that happens.”—City Councilmember Tammy Morales

Avery did not respond to an email seeking comment on Pedersen’s decision. His LinkedIn page describes him as a member of Cascade Bicycle Club and an advocate against car-oriented streets—positions that put him at odds with some of Pedersen’s stated views on transportation planning. “I plan for people, not cars,” Avery wrote. “If you want to call it a war on cars, that’s fine. Each year over 35,000 Americans are killed by people driving motor vehicles. … In 2021, despite a commitment to Vision Zero, traffic-related deaths in the City of Seattle are on the rise.”

Pedersen advocated against a long-planned protected bike lane along 35th Avenue NE in his district, which former mayor Jenny Durkan killed after business owners complained about the loss of on-street parking spaces. He also opposed bike lanes on Eastlake, arguing that cyclists could simply veer back and forth between parallel “greenways” located on nearby streets. And before he was elected in 2019, Pedersen argued against the Move Seattle levy, among other reasons, because it funded safe bike lanes, which Pedersen argued are useless for “senior citizens, the disabled, single parents, parents of young children without transportation to school, and those juggling multiple jobs .”

After the city council discussed Migden’s appointment earlier this week, Councilmember Tammy Morales noted pointedly, “These commissions and boards have processes for how they make appointments. They review applications, do interviews, and so it can be frustrating when the folks that they have chosen through community process are not selected. And I understand why folks might feel demoralized when that happens.”

Udelhofen said the bike board plans “to be even more proactive with our timeline” for the next open seat, and will “start the process even earlier to ensure there is ample time for our recommended candidates to be reviewed, discussed, and approved in time for the 9/1/22 term start date.” She said that although the bike board is “disappointed with the lack of transparency around the selection and approval process, we have no qualms about Dr. Midgen’s qualifications for serving on SBAB” and look forward to his participation on the board.

3. The King County Board of Health voted on Thursday to repeal the county’s bicycle helmet requirement, responding to a push from bicycle advocates and civil liberties groups who pointed to data showing that police enforcing the law disproportionately targeted people of color and homeless people.

Continue reading “SPD Jails Shoplifters for Thefts as Small as $6.99; Pedersen Unilaterally Installs Bike Board Member; Helmet Law Overturned”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

Hotel Shelter Closes, County Debates Jail Releases, State Mulls Human Services Mandate, and Harrell Appoints New Directors

1. On Friday, January 29, the Executive Pacific Hotel concluded its service as a homeless shelter. By the end of the day, the Low-Income Housing Institute had relocated almost everyone still living there to permanent housing, shelter, or another hotel. According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, just one resident declined to engage with agency staffers and returned to unsheltered homelessness. Overall, 79 of the 91 households (totaling 99 people living in the hotel as of last October moved (or will move) into permanent housing, five now live at one of LIHI’s tiny house villages, and one moved into transitional housing. Just six left without a specific destination. 

That’s a positive outcome, especially compared to the worst-case scenario: Dozens of people back out on the street in the coldest months of the year. But it isn’t the outcome former Mayor Jenny Durkan wanted when she agreed, reluctantly, to spend federal COVID relief dollars on the hotels. Under the administration’s ambitious, highly unrealistic plan, the hotels would serve as short-term way stations rather than traditional shelters. People would move in off the street, sign up for services, and move swiftly into market-rate housing using short-term  “rapid rehousing” subsidies as a bridge between living on the street and self-sufficiency. 

The reasons this ambitious plan was a failure were obvious from the beginning. Rapid rehousing works best for people who have few barriers to housing, such as people who recently became homeless because of job loss or another temporary condition. The hotel, in contrast, served many chronically homeless people with complex physical and mental health conditions that contributed to their homelessness, including people the city referred there during its regular encampment sweeps. “It was a poor design, because the people who were moved into the hotel did not match the profile of who would be successful in rapid rehousing,” Lee said.

By the end of its ten-month contract, LIHI and its rapid-rehousing partner, Catholic Community Services, had enrolled just 33 people in rapid rehousing. Enrollment, as we’ve reported, is just the beginning of a lengthy process that may not ultimately lead to housing.

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s homelessness committee meeting last Friday, committee chair Andrew Lewis said he hoped the city’s Human Services Department would provide “a pretty detailed after action report on the rapid rehousing function, to determine what lessons we can learn and transition over to the King County Regional Homelessness authority,” which has taken over HSD’s former responsibilities as the chief homelessness agency in the region.

2. The King County Council held a public hearing on Tuesday about several possible options to reduce the number of people in county jails in response to a surge of COVID-19 infections among inmates and staff. King County Executive Dow Constantine, the county prosecutor’s office, and King County courts all have a say in various aspects of who is booked into or released from jail.

The hearing centered on demands from unlikely allies: As case numbers skyrocketed in early January, the unions representing King County’s public defenders and correctional officers joined forces to sound the alarm about deteriorating jail conditions that have left inmates unable to attend court hearings and overworked guards sleeping in empty cells. The unions asked the county to immediately stop booking people into jail or issuing warrants for nonviolent offenses, and to release everyone currently held in jails for nonviolent offenses.

Elbert Aull, a felony attorney with the King County Department of Public Defense, told council members that the constant “churn” in and out of King County jails has exacerbated the spread of the virus behind bars. Aull added that many defendants will have their cases dismissed by a judge or dropped by a prosecutor once they make it to court. “Implementing booking restrictions would mean that people who are going to be released anyway won’t sit in jail for half a week while they wait for a judge or prosecutor to do the inevitable,” he said.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg countered that the county has already reduced the county’s jail population dramatically, from roughly 1,900 to 1,350, and argued that those who remain in jail are incarcerated for good reason. More than 70 percent of jail inmates in King County, Satterberg said, are charged with either a violent crime or a “serious” felony like violating a protection order; all but 12 of the 1,350 people in county custody face felony charges.

Council president Claudia Balducci, who previously ran the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, also argued that the council could hire more corrections officers. “Whatever we do temporarily will not be fixed long-term until we can get staffing to where it needs to be,” she said.

“It is always the department’s intent to provide excellent customer service,” DSHS director Babs Roberts told the committee, but “in order to provide the service levels this bill demands, DSHS must have adequate, modernized infrastructure and sufficient staffing levels in place, and we do not.”

3. The state Department of Social and Health Services responded briefly to legislation that would force the agency to improve access to its services during a meeting of the state house’s Housing, Human Services, and Veterans committee on Tuesday, but did not come out against the proposal. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) would require DSHS to reduce phone hold times to 30 minutes or less, reopen its service centers to walk-in clients, and “ensure that clients may apply for and receive services in a manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, [including] needs related to technology, language, and ability.” If DSHS failed to meet any of those standards, the bill would prohibit the agency from cutting off clients’ benefits.

“It is always the department’s intent to provide excellent customer service,” DSHS director Babs Roberts told the committee, but “in order to provide the service levels this bill demands, DSHS must have adequate, modernized infrastructure and sufficient staffing levels in place, and we do not.” Last week, bill cosponsor Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola that she sympathized with the agency’s staffing crunch, but added that the agency has not asked the legislature for funding to help them recruit and hire more workers.

Catholic Community Services deputy director Dan Wise told the committee, which Peterson chairs, that the 4,000-employee organization she represents has faced challenges similar to those at DSHS. “I totally understand the difficulty of hiring and maintaining a trained workforce,” Wise said. But, she added, CCS has “continued to offer in-person services” throughout the pandemic. “It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been safe. It has been absolutely necessary,  because I know that if we limit our in-person service like DSHS has done, the people who fall thru the cracks are in the depths of poverty.” The bill is scheduled for a second committee hearing at 10am on Friday, February 4.

4. Mayor Bruce Harrell announced three new additions to his administration on Tuesday. Former mayoral candidate (and ex-state legislator) Jessyn Farrell, who endorsed Harrell after failing to make it through the 2021 mayoral primary, will head up the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, which deals with overall environmental policy in the city.

Markham McIntyre, the current vice president of the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the head of CASE, the Chamber’s Amazon-backed independent expenditure committee, will direct the Office of Economic Development. CASE sat out the most recent election after its attempt in 2019 to unseat left-leaning city council members, including Kshama Sawant, backfired spectacularly; in 2017, the business group spent more than $600,000 to help former mayor Jenny Durkan get elected.

Greg Wong, an attorney at Pacifica Law Group, will lead the Department of Neighborhoods. According to the announcement, Wong is a former schoolteacher who “led school levy campaigns, helped establish the City’s high-quality, affordable preschool program, and served in executive board roles with several community nonprofits.” He is the only one of the three directors announced Tuesday who will replace a permanent, rather than am interim, department head; former DON director Andrés Mantilla had already told the Harrell team that he was leaving prior to Tuesday’s announcement.

—Erica C. Barnett, Paul Kiefer

Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis

The King County jail in downtown Seattle (Paul Kiefer/PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

An overwhelming surge of COVID-19 infections among staff and inmates at King County jails has spurred a rare alliance between the unions representing the county’s correctional officers and public defenders, which sent a joint letter to elected officials in Seattle and King County on Friday asking for an immediate intervention to reduce the jail’s population and stem the spread of the virus.

“COVID-19 should not be a death sentence for anyone held in a jail or anyone working in a jail,” the unions wrote. “The stark reality is that if no changes are made, people will continue to get sick and continue to suffer.”

The two labor organizations typically represent opposite perspectives in the criminal legal system, a tension they acknowledged in their letter as a sign of the dire need for emergency actions. To reduce the jails’ populations, the unions pushed the county to immediately stop booking people into jail for non-violent offenses, to stop issuing warrants for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses, and to “make plans for the immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.” The unions also pressed county officials to prioritize improving staffing and workplace safety at the jail.

The jails face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has expressed its openness to moving more inmates to electronic home monitoring to reduce crowding, though many of the people held in jail under the prosecutor’s purview are charged with violent offenses. Meanwhile, new Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has expressed her intentions to more aggressively pursue misdemeanor prosecutions of “quality of life” crimes like shoplifting and carrying a concealed firearm without a permit—a plan that could be at cross purposes with the unions’ push to reduce the jail population.

As of Friday afternoon, 197 of the 1,388 people held in King County jails had tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 288 people were in quarantine. That total has risen astronomically since the start of the new year: the number of infections in King County jails was in the single digits for months until the last week of December. The jails also face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

According to King County Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesman Noah Haglund, the scale of the outbreak overwhelmed the space and staffing limitations of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the county has housed COVID-positive inmates for most of the pandemic. DAJD is now also housing COVID-positive inmates at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, and it has limited out-of-cell time for anyone in quarantine to 30 minutes or less per day. People in quarantine at the downtown Seattle jail, Haglund added, are likely to have more out-of-cell time because of the layout of the housing units. At both facilities, the DAJD has provided radios and games to people in quarantine. Continue reading “Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis”

As Omicron Cases Surge, King County Jail Vaccination Rate Reaches New High

Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center
Photo via Kingcounty.gov.

By Paul Kiefer

Nine months into the campaign to vaccinate people held in King County’s three detention centers, jail health staff have fully vaccinated more than 2,000 people. The effort shows no signs of abating. But with cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus surging in Seattle and King County, the risk of serious outbreaks among jail inmates and staff is also far from over.

As of Monday, December 27, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) recorded twenty new COVID-19 infections among people in custody. The new cases mark one of the largest spikes since the department’s vaccination campaign began in March, when nearly 50 inmates tested positive for the virus in a span of three weeks. After several smaller surges over the summer, infections in the jails remained consistently low from mid-September until last week, when the latest surge began.

The population of the jails turns over frequently. In the first half of 2021, the average inmate spent just over a month in custody. The constant flow of new arrivals, combined with the transmission risk posed by guards and jail staff, makes it difficult to completely curtail the spread of the virus behind bars. In total, DADJ has recorded 355 cases of the virus among inmates since the pandemic began. However, as a result of the pandemic, King County’s jails also hold far fewer people than in the recent past. Since the start of the pandemic, the county’s inmate population has fallen by nearly a third, with 1338 people in custody as of last Tuesday.

When a person arrives at a jail in King County for booking, health staff test them for COVID-19 and offer them a chance to get vaccinated. When the vaccination program began at the end of March, 101 inmates received vaccines in the span of a single week. After a surge of takers in April and May, the pace of vaccination slowed; since June, health staff have vaccinated an average of 291 people per month.

Because of the high turnover, it has been a challenge for jail staffers to keep pace with the county’s overall vaccination rate, which recently passed 75 percent. The vaccination rate behind bars hovered around 50 percent for much of the summer, although it has risen to 65 percent as of this week.

“The people we serve have as many questions as anyone else about the COVID-19 vaccine,” said King County Jail Health Division Director Danotra McBride. “A significant portion of our incarcerated patients have been hesitant to receive the vaccine since it first became available, but we’re happy to see hesitancy decreasing over time.” To boost the vaccination rate among the incarcerated population, jail health staffers have begun offering vaccines to inmates during every clinic visit, and jail administrators have brought infectious disease experts to talk with people in custody at the jails in Seattle and Kent.

The arrival of the Omicron variant in King County—which, as of last Tuesday, made up a third of the county’s total recent infections—creates a new challenge for the county’s jail population and health workers. The new variant is more resistant to existing COVID-19 vaccines, presenting a challenge to jail health staff just as the vaccination campaign began to pick up steam once again.

Public Safety Fizz: Council Takes Up SPD Budget, Captain Demoted Over Protest Role Sues, and More

1. The Seattle City Council’s budget committee heard presentations on Thursday about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2022 public safety budget, which would increase the Seattle Police Department budget by $2.8 million and add 125 new officers, for a net gain, after projected attrition, of 35 officers compared to current staffing levels.

The meeting helped clarify the mayor’s decision to move the nascent “Triage Team” unit (previously, and briefly, known as Triage One) to the Seattle Fire Department instead of the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC). According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, his fledgling department is underprepared to take on the new crisis units. “It would take us at least six months to get the teams off the ground,” he said, “and I recognize that there’s an urgent need to get this program running sooner than that.” 

In her presentation, SPD budget director Angela Socci said most of SPD’s proposed budget increase would pay for paid family leave and a standard annual wage increase. The rest of SPD’s spending plans come from re-shuffling the department’s existing budget. Even with 125 new hires and slower attrition, Socci predicted that the department may have as much as $19 million in unspent salaries next year to repurpose.

After a brief report on a plan to add staff to the City Attorney’s Office to expand a pre-filing diversion program for young adults, Councilmember Andrew Lewis floated the possibility that the council could make the program a “permanent fixture” of the office instead of “an elective program”—alluding to the impending change in leadership at the City Attorney’s Office, which could place the future of the office’s pre-filing diversion program in question.

2. Three people in custody at the King County Detention Center in downtown Seattle lost consciousness on Wednesday after ingesting a still-unidentified substance. The King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) would not confirm on Thursday whether the three people had suffered overdoses, but department spokesman Noah Haglund noted that jail staff and medics were able to resuscitate all three before transporting them to Harborview Medical Center along with two other people who had ingested the same substance. All five people were housed in the same section of the jail; after the incident, guards emptied the nearby cells and moved inmates to a different unit.

3. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) will no longer use disciplinary segregation—solitary confinement as a form of punishment—in any of the agency’s jails across the state.

The DOC made the change after reviewing data collected in Washington prisons between 2019 and 2020 that showed that more than half of the 2,500 people subjected to disciplinary segregation were punished for non-violent infractions. Additionally, the data showed that most people held in disciplinary segregation had already waited in administrative segregation—another type of solitary confinement, ostensibly for the safety of the incarcerated person—while awaiting a disciplinary hearing. The average stay in disciplinary segregation during the one-year study period ranged from 11 days for non-violent infractions to 16 days for violent ones.

According to a news release issued on Thursday afternoon, the DOC officially ended its use of disciplinary segregation on September 16.

4. A Seattle Police Department commander demoted in May filed a lawsuit against the city on Wednesday alleging that Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz unfairly blamed him for the department’s handling of a protest on Capitol Hill on June 1, 2020. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: Council Takes Up SPD Budget, Captain Demoted Over Protest Role Sues, and More”

Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding

By Paul Kiefer

As the recent COVID-19 outbreak in King County jails subsides, a new report by the King County Auditor’s Office has highlighted an array of other concerns about safety and racial disparities in the county’s two adult detention facilities. Among the reasons for concern: Black and Indigenous women in King County jails spend more time in restrictive custody than the average for all female prisoners, and the death rate for inmates exceeds the national average.

The report, which auditor Kymber Waltmunson and her staff presented to the county council on Tuesday, recommended that the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention take steps to suicide-proof cells, expand psychiatric care for inmates, reduce the number of inmates per cell, and limit opportunities for jail staff to discriminate against Black and Indigenous inmates through housing assignments and behavioral sanctions, among other suggestions.

Inmates in King County jails die at a higher rate than the national average—in 2020, for instance, five inmates died in the county’s custody.

On some fronts, the auditor’s report showed signs of improvement at King County jails. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several county departments—including courts and the county prosecutor’s office—have collaborated to reduce the county’s day-to-day inmate population by tightening the criteria for detention.

The results are clear: in 2020, the county’s average daily inmate population fell from roughly 1,900 at the start of the year to roughly 1,300 by the year’s end. At the larger, higher-security jail in downtown Seattle, the declining inmate population allowed jail administrators to distribute the remaining inmates across now-empty cells.

According to the auditor, reducing the number of inmates sharing a cell spurred a dramatic drop in the number of fights and assaults in the downtown jail: While the facility’s population fell by 47 percent in 2020, violent incidents fell by roughly 63 percent.

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At the lower-security Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, the reduction in violence was less pronounced, and smaller than the decrease in the jail’s population. That facility, which holds fewer inmates than the downtown jail, holds fewer inmates and rarely places two people in the same cell—a practice known as “double-bunking.” As a result, and because of the types of inmates held in Kent, the facility sees far less violence in a typical year than the jail in downtown Seattle.

But Brooke Leary, the Law Enforcement Audit Manager for the county auditor’s office, cautioned the council that the decline in violence—including fights, attacks on inmates and attacks on staff—could reverse if the county abandons its pandemic-era efforts to reduce the inmate population, or if the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) follows through on King County Executive Dow Constantine’s plan to close down a floor of the downtown jail by 2022.

In their report, the county’s auditing team recommended that jail administrators work with prosecutors and courts to ensure that the inmate population continues to fall to avoid a future increase in “double-bunking” and an associated uptick in violence.

In his response to the recommendations, DAJD Director (and former Seattle police chief) John Diaz rebuffed the auditor’s suggestion that his department should prioritize providing each inmate their own cell. Continue reading “Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding”

Morning Fizz: Echohawk Campaign Says “Paperwork” Delayed Consultant Payment, Durkan Lowballs COVID Stipends, Echohawk Distances Herself from Durkan, and a COVID Outbreak In Jail

Maleng Regional Justice Center; photo via kingcounty.gov

1. Last week, a Black political consultant, Crystal Fincher, tweeted about an unnamed mayoral campaign “trying to stiff a BIPOC firm for services provided.” She didn’t name the campaign, but the firm was obviously Upper Left Strategies, a Black-owned local campaign consulting business. The campaign, it turns out, was that of mayoral candidate Colleen Echohawk.

Echohawk had been working with Upper Left until she replaced them with the Mercury Group, led by former Mike McGinn strategists Bill Broadhead and Julie McCoy, who are white.

Another Echohawk consultant, John Wyble, said the payment to Upper Left—according to campaign disclosure documents, about $15,000—was held up by “paperwork” that the departing consultants needed to sign; although neither Echohawk nor Wyble would elaborate on the kind of paperwork the campaign wanted its former consultants to sign (and Upper Left principal Michael Charles did not respond to calls).

Echohawk confirmed that her campaign did require the consultants to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which she characterized as “standard.”

Other consultants PubliCola asked in general terms about NDAs said they had never had to sign an NDA for a political candidate, although they are fairly common with corporate clients.

2. On Tuesday, Echohawk called on Mayor Jenny Durkan to use FEMA emergency dollars or other sources to move dozens of people living in and around Miller Park, on Capitol Hill, into shelter or housing instead of removing them. Capitol Hill Seattle reported that Durkan’s office said they would not rule removing the encampment if people “refuse” to accept the services on offer, which is basically the administration’s pre-pandemic approach to park encampments.

What’s interesting about Echohawk’s statement, which was prompted by what Echohawk called “the rumbling of a sweep,” was that it represents a clear attempt to distance herself from Durkan, with whom Echohawk and the homeless service organization she runs, Chief Seattle Club, has been a frequent ally, going back to Durkan’s first days in office.

Echohawk didn’t disagree with the idea that the park, which includes playfields and is near Meany Middle School, needs to be accessible to people who want to use the field or play in the park. But she is trying to draw a line between herself (as someone who wants to “get someone—a human services agency—to agree to do the case management”) and the mayor (who, according to Echohawk, still thinks sweeps are an effective response to homelessness.)

Echohawk isn’t, to be clear, offering a specific solution, and her proposal (to link people in Miller Park up with case management and hotel-based shelters) would quickly run into the gears of city contracting bureaucracy and the limitations of existing human service provider staffing. But her efforts to distance herself from Durkan are sure to continue in a race that includes one frontrunner who has declared herself an outsider and another who is currently the president of the City Council, Durkan’s perennial bête noire.

3. More than a year into the pandemic, city of Seattle employees who’ve been working from home will get a retroactive stipend for the additional costs associated with setting up home offices, including higher utility costs, Internet service, and other expenses. The maximum per month is $48. Shaun Van Eyk, the union representative for PROTEC17, which represents many city employees, told Fizz the Durkan Administration’s opening offer was $24 a month.

4. Inmates and staff at King County detention facilities are experiencing a new wave of COVID-19 cases, according to new data from the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.

Since March 9, 46 inmates have tested positive for the virus, as well as seven staff members. The outbreak has worsened since last weekend, with 19 inmates testing positive on March 22 alone. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Echohawk Campaign Says “Paperwork” Delayed Consultant Payment, Durkan Lowballs COVID Stipends, Echohawk Distances Herself from Durkan, and a COVID Outbreak In Jail”