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Suicide and staffing issues at King County Jail, ‘a radioactive subject’

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.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

According to experts, the suicide rate among inmates at the King County Jail has been extreme in recent years. Sydney Brownstone has been investigating the story for the Seattle Times. She told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about her reporting.

Please note: This story involves a discussion of suicide.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: How big is this problem?

Sydney Brownstone: Between August 2021 and July 2022, there were four suicides in the downtown Seattle jail. That's one of two adult jails run by King County, and we just had another suicide in the jail at the beginning of this month. Those might sound like relatively small numbers, but what you have to understand is that those are huge for this jail. There have been twice the number of suicides in the King County Jail system since the beginning of 2020 than there were in the prior eight years.

I also learned through my reporting that the rate is enormous compared to national pre-pandemic jail suicide rates. We don't have data from the pandemic years, but our suicide rate over the last 12 months is four times the national pre-pandemic suicide rate. That's not even counting two suicide victims who were released from custody before they died in the hospital. If we were counting their deaths, our rate would be something like eight times the national pre-pandemic average.

When you decided to start looking into these deaths, did you start to see any patterns?

Yes. All four of the suicides I looked at over the course of a year had two things in common. First, they were all in the general population, which means that they weren't in restrictive housing for people who were considered suicide risks or who have serious mental illnesses. That doesn't mean they couldn't have been identified as having mental health challenges. One of the people who died by suicide had recently been admitted to the hospital for a report of being sexually assaulted, and another person had a long history of mental health crises. But speaking broadly, this isn't rare. A lot of people who end up in the general population might have serious mental illnesses or suicidality that they're not sharing at screening.

The other common factor is that all four of the deaths took place in single cells. That's important when you consider that a lethal factor in suicide is commonly isolation. It's also important in the context of jail conditions right now, because there's severe understaffing, group programming is shut down, and in-person visitation is mostly suspended. This means that people in the jail can spend 23 hours a day in a cell alone, because there isn't enough staff to get people out, and they have next to no in-person interaction with the outside world.

To what extent are these patterns connected to Covid protocols?

They're inseparable. In 2020, the jail suspended group programming to cut down on transmission rates. They also started placing people primarily in single cells. King County auditors also released a report saying it would be better to avoid double-bunking to cut down on assault and interpersonal violence. So, this is something we really saw pick up at the beginning of the pandemic.

The thing is, since the pandemic began, it may be less about Covid risk now than it is about staffing. There's a severe staffing crisis. Corrections staff are down about 100 positions. That's about a fifth of the workforce. And if you don't have staff, you can't get people out of their cells, you can't facilitate in-person visitation, and you can't facilitate group programming. A lot of things tie back into that staffing crisis.

And I understand there's an issue with the bunks themselves. Is that right?

Right. When we look at suicide risk, we have to look at whether people have the means to kill themselves. Three of the people who died by suicide in that year died in cells with known suicide risks. The jail first became aware of a design flaw in bunks that gave people an opportunity to kill themselves in the year 2020. But the jail is still putting people in cells with those same bunks. It's working on retrofitting them, but the work isn't scheduled to be finished until 2023.

I know you reached out to King County officials for the story. What did they say that they're doing to address this?

It's hazy, frankly, on what they're doing. King County Executive Dow Constantine said he asked the jail to review its policies and procedures, and the jail responded that they're complying with best practices. A person could argue that putting people in cells with known suicide risks challenges that notion.

The thing is, everyone I spoke to — Constantine, members of the King County Council —agrees that decreasing isolation by reopening in-person visitation and group programming is necessary, but they've given me no benchmarks for when that could happen. The jail says they'll do so when it's safe, but I've gotten zero answers on what safe means either in terms of Covid transmission or staffing.

This is happening at a time when we know a lot of people are concerned about crime and public safety. There's pressure on the justice system to show that they're doing something, which includes putting people in jail. I'm wondering how the political climate is impacting how this might get solved.

In order to answer that question, we have to go back to 2020. In July of 2020, Dow Constantine said he was going to close the downtown Seattle jail. It was built in the 80s, it's decrepit, but also, this idea of closing the jail was in keeping with this idea that the jail should not be the place where people with serious mental illnesses end up because there's no other place for them. It shouldn't be the place where people who are homeless end up. And the context at the time, of course, was the historic protests over police brutality.

There was a lot of talk then about how we might reimagine the criminal justice system. To that end, over the last couple of years, the King County budget divested about $1 million from the jail in anticipation of closing one of the floors. The jail population was low during the pandemic, and they assumed they could keep it that way. But since then, we've seen the opposite happen. The jail population has grown. We're now over 20%, of what was budgeted for. And there's been an uptick in reported crime and the public is really concerned about public safety.

So, these ideas around long-term reform are running into this wall where the dominant conversation has flipped. It's not about how can we incarcerate people less. It's now how can we put people in jail more. Bottom line, I think Democratic politicians are trying to balance prior promises around major criminal justice reform efforts with current public sentiments around crime, and that's left the jail as kind of a radioactive subject.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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