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caption: Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington.
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Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington.

Vulnerable jail inmates are in solitary for ‘social distancing and infection prevention’ in King County

King County inmates most vulnerable to COVID-19 are being kept in solitary confinement as the local coronavirus outbreak continues.

The county transferred 45 people with underlying medical conditions who were 60 or older to the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent March 13.

The inmates had no symptoms of COVID-19, according to the jail.

As of Monday there were “about 35 people” in the unit for vulnerable inmates. For close to two weeks such vulnerable inmates were kept in cells by themselves and allowed to leave for 30 minutes every three days.

When they were let out of their cell into the dayroom, they were also alone.

The solitary confinement of vulnerable inmates was a “temporary emergency measure,” according to written answers to questions by Dr. Benjamin Sanders, Medical Director for Public Health’s Jail Health Services Division.

Solitary confinement is more conducive to “social distancing and infection prevention,” he said.

“Since it was not known if any of these people would develop symptoms of infection, strict limitation on movement was instituted as an emergency measure to decrease the risk of exposure, including allowing one person out of a cell at any given time,” according to Sanders.

COVID-19 is spreading through jails in other parts of the country, with hundreds infected so far, including at least 167 inmates and 114 staff at Rikers Island jail in New York.

A King County spokesperson said that as of Tuesday morning no jail inmates have confirmed cases of COVID-19. One correctional officer at the Seattle jail tested positive and notified the jail on March 16.

At first when inmates were transferred to the Kent jail, they felt like they were being disciplined, according to one jail employee who spoke to KUOW on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Discipline is one of the only times inmates are placed under such restrictions at the Kent jail, the employee said.

Now, the general feeling is shifting to anxiety, boredom, and loneliness.

“There’s this anxiety because they don’t know how long they’ll be there,” the employee said.

KUOW reached out to the jail for comment Thursday morning March 26, and that evening the out-of-cell restrictions were loosened, according to an email from county spokesperson Chad Lewis.

“After the initial emergency response, we determined that we could safely allow four people into the dayroom at a time and still adhere to the guidelines for social distancing recommended by the CDC and Public Health because the space is large enough with tall ceilings and access to outdoors,” according to the email. “Increasing the number of people in the dayroom to four at a time made it possible for each person to be outside their cell for about 30 minutes in the morning, and 30 minutes in the evening.”

The ACLU is urging the county continue to release inmates as part of its response to the threat of COVID-10, said Jaime Hawk of the ACLU of Washington in an email.

“If solitary is being used, it would punish people for being sick or being at risk of getting sick,” she said. “Experts have raised that people may be afraid to report symptoms out of fear of punishment, which is counterproductive and dangerous.”

The courts have allowed solitary confinement for discipline, medical purposes or other reasons related to the health or safety of the institution, said Nick Straley, an attorney with civil legal aid law firm Columbia Legal Services. The firm petitioned the Washington state Supreme Court to release some inmates to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak, and the court has agreed to hear the case.

But keeping people in solitary confinement is inappropriate for social distancing and addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, Straley said.

“One of the most important steps to take would be to actually release them and allow them to go back to their home where they can do what we’re all doing, which is hunkering down and keeping ourselves and our families safe,” Straley said.

Solitary confinement is damaging and can cause psychological injuries and hallucinations, he said. Many jail inmates could be released without a significant impact on public safety, Straley said.

“The people that are inside jails are, in large measure, there because they’re simply unable to afford the bail that a court has imposed upon them,” Straley said.

King County is working to reduce the number of people in the local jails. March 31, 1,370 inmates were in custody in King County, according to the county, down from 1,940 people incarcerated March 1.

The county aims to bring the adult incarcerated population to 1,200 people so cells only house one inmate each.

“Quickly and safely reducing the number of people who are in custody will provide our healthcare professionals the space they need to follow recommendations by Public Health,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a March 24 press release announcing the suspension of the county’s Work Release Program.

The jails are also limiting the inmates they’ll accept. People will no longer be booked on misdemeanor charges unless they represent a risk to public safety, and have charges such as a misdemeanor assault, DUI, or sex crimes. People will still be booked for felonies.

“I think it’s a good start, but it needs to go much further,” said Director of Public Defense Anita Khandelwal.

She would also like to see felony offenses, such as drug charges, included in the criteria that would exclude someone from being booked.

“Those are people who do not belong in the jail in any circumstance but particularly in the middle of a pandemic,” Khandelwal said.

King County Corrections Guild president Dennis Folk said he understands the need for releasing inmates and increasing booking restrictions, but he’s concerned about public safety.

“It’s scary for us because we feel like we have a commitment to the citizens of King County to keep everybody safe,” he said.

At the same time, everyone lives and works in close quarters at the jail and Folk said he is worried there will be enough masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for officers in the event of an outbreak.

“If it gets inside our general population, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” he said.