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caption: The King County Jail is shown on Thursday, September 17, 2020, on 5th Avenue in Seattle.
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The King County Jail is shown on Thursday, September 17, 2020, on 5th Avenue in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Family visits resume at King County jails, but staffing shortages remain a major hurdle

In-person visits are scheduled to begin again Monday for people held at King County’s jail in downtown Seattle. It’s the first time family members have been able to visit face-to-face at that facility since the Covid pandemic began.

In October, the county resumed family visits at the second adult jail in Kent. But critics and jail officials say short staffing is still a major constraint.

Allen Nance is the recently confirmed director of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. Nance said he’s working to address multiple health and safety concerns, including a spike in jail suicides over the past year, and water quality issues that recently forced the jail to offer bottled water.

At a recent briefing, members of the King County Council also pressed him to offer more programming so people in detention aren’t spending so many hours confined.

Nance said he has many areas of “interest and concern,” but resuming these visits is an important step forward.

“People are feeling very pleased with the fact that they can now see their loved ones in person. And while we’ve maintained video visitation, it just isn’t the same,” he said.

Youth detained at the Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle can now have family visits without physical barriers.

“You can give them a hug,” he said.

Nance said they have also resumed adult programs for high school completion, chaplaincy and veterans, and are working to re-launch addiction support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. The changes are part of a list of updates King County published on Oct. 27.

King county could house some inmates at alternate facility

But with more than a fifth of corrections positions vacant, critics say conditions are inadequate for people held there. Nance said there are 123 vacancies for corrections officers (out of 500), and another 23 positions in juvenile detention. As a result of the short staffing, King County has consolidated most of its staff and more than 1,200 adult inmates at the downtown Seattle jail.

The Regional Justice Center in Kent has reduced its population to under 300 and no longer allows bookings, which forces police in South King County to make more trips to Seattle.

Nance said a stopgap measure could be to house some King County inmates at the South Correctional Entity or “SCORE.” That jail currently serves cities in South King County and houses people accused of misdemeanors. Nance said placing people there would put "us in a better position to have a little bit more flexibility in how we house individuals, without necessarily having to ramp up with the staffing as quickly.”

But he said any agreement is likely several months away. He said one advantage is that police in South King County would not have to drive to Seattle as often to book people. But the county would have to figure out how to facilitate inmates’ access to attorneys and court hearings.

Critics say staffing still a crisis

Molly Gilbert heads the union representing King County’s public defenders. She says they haven’t been included in discussions around housing King County inmates at SCORE and are opposed to the concept.

Her union, SEIU 925, and the King County Corrections Guild issued a letter in January calling on King County to address staffing shortages by releasing more people facing misdemeanors and non-violent offenses. Gilbert said the jail needs to bring the population down in order to house people humanely.

She said resuming visiting hours is “a noble effort” but she’s skeptical that there will be enough staff to serve the family members who come to visit. Gilbert said defense lawyers are already having trouble getting access to clients.

“When there isn’t staffing to bring people out, I just don’t know what that’s going to look like. So what I would be curious to know is how many visits are able to happen in a given week,” Gilbert said.

Nance said so far this year his office has hired 47 corrections officers and 13 juvenile detention officers.

Michelle Helpenstell is the secretary for the King County Corrections Guild. In September, she said she was working mandatory overtime five days a week, and didn’t have time to go home between shifts. Over those five days she would crash in a hotel room paid for by King County.

“So when I get off at 2:30 p.m., I go to the hotel, check in, get four or five hours of sleep, turn around and come back and work another 16 hours,” Helpenstell said.

For meals, she said people would bring some food from home for the week. The other options were takeout or vending machines at the jail.

“It’s really nice vending machines, they have yogurts, boiled eggs, nicer food. But it does get old,” she said.

But Helpenstell said corrections officers are pleased with their latest contract, which contains a 15 percent pay increase and a commitment to consider alternative schedules. Nance said they’ve hired as many officers this year as the last two years combined.

Addressing in-custody deaths

The downtown Seattle jail has seen a spike in deaths by suicide since the pandemic began and staffing levels became acute. There were four suicides in custody between August 2021 and July 2022.

Nance said he’s made several changes intended to reduce risk factors for people in custody. King County jails have stopped providing sheets and are now providing blankets only, following the example of other jail facilities.

The jail is restricting the quantities of over-the-counter medication available for purchase in the commissary.

King County has retrofitted about a third of jail bunk beds to prevent suicides, but Nance said the retrofitting will continue into 2023. And Nance said they are creating a process to track when inmates call 911 or 988, so those people get referred to counselors. Previously Nance said 911 calls from inmates were simply blocked.

“We wanted to make sure that if someone attempted to contact 911, that information was tracked so we could follow up with those individuals. And with the newly instituted 988 number available for suicide prevention, that gave us another opportunity to identify those individuals who are crying out for help but haven’t necessarily reached out to any of the folks in the jail,” he said.

There are currently 1233 people housed at the Seattle jail and 286, all facing lower-level felony charges, housed in Kent. The Kent jail is often described as safer and more modern, with a design that facilitates more movement and interaction for inmates. But it takes more staff to operate. Nance said a longer-term goal would be to house more people at the Kent jail once the staffing situation allows.

“If we had the capacity to have more people in that facility, I would certainly prefer that,” he said. “But given where we are today, I don’t think that is realistic.”

Nance said proposals to close a floor of the Seattle jail are also on hold, and the county is no closer to an alternative to replace the Seattle jail, despite the building being widely considered outdated and suffering problems like the recent concerns with cloudy drinking water.

If you are experiencing a crisis, the nationwide 24/7 helpline is 988.

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