King County jail ‘crisis’ prompts joint request for release of non-violent offenders

Jan 17, 2022, 5:08 PM | Updated: Jan 18, 2022, 7:36 am
King County, jail...
A person places their hand on a window inside a jail in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

A coalition of public defenders and corrections officers are demanding that King County take immediate action to relieve a short-staffed jail system overburdened with COVID cases.

King County Corrections Guild calls for two-week shutdown of jail operations

In a letter addressed to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and Executive Dow Constantine, among other elected officials, King County Corrections Officers Guild and SEIU 925 Department of Public Defense Chapter jointly detailed “an imminent and ongoing crisis occurring in our county’s jails” brought on by roughly one third of jail populations in Seattle and Kent being placed under COVID protocols.

The letter claims that of the 1,363 adults held in King County jails, 194 have confirmed COVID cases and 243 are being held in quarantine.

Furthermore, the two unions claim that 100 corrections positions remain vacant, with 50 officers out sick and no contingency staff to occupy those roles.

“Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the letter reads. “Corrections officers are sleeping in jails because they cannot get home between a double shift and their next one. … Incarcerated people are being kept in conditions analogous to solitary confinement. … Nurses report that they are delayed in providing necessary and potentially life saving medicine.”

With the jail system severely distressed, public defenders are joining hands with corrections in a series of demands to deescalate the problems concurrent with the staff shortage:

  • Impose immediate booking restrictions so that violent offenses are the only ones booked into county jail facilities.
  • Stop issuing warrants for misdemeanors and non-violent offenses.
  • Immediately take all necessary steps to improve staffing workplace safety in the jail.
  • Make plans for the immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.

The letter notes that the coalition is “historic,” in the sense that the two bodies rarely align their positions. The urgency of the situation has brought them together, “united in that this current crisis is headed towards a catastrophe,” and in their request that “every person and entity with the ability to act do so to ensure that … our corrections facilities remain a safe and constitutional space for every citizen of King County.”

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King County jail ‘crisis’ prompts joint request for release of non-violent offenders