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Friday, June 27, 2008

When Numbers Gamble With People's Lives

Since the mid-1990s, Washington State jail populations have increased exponentially. Obsolete facilities built decades ago to hold a handful of prisoners are now packed like sardine tins, with as many prisoners sleeping on the floor as in bunks. Overcrowding has resulted in numerous problems in terms of security and meeting prisoner medical needs.
- "Washington Jail Prisoners Suffer from Overcrowding, Abusive Guards, Inadequate Health Care and Indifferent Politicians" by Roger Smith at Prison Legal News on 06/27/2008

The Stranger’s Jonah Spangenthal-Lee recently posted that the city of Seattle may not need to build its own jail anytime soon since the projected growth of the jail population in the King County Jail was outdated and that the jail is actually under capacity. Of course, this is with the proviso that three floors of that facility are currently under renovation, which reduces the number of detainees it can hold. While I don’t doubt his numbers, most people don't understand that even with those numbers the jail can still have overcrowding problems due to near constant renovations and floor closures, but also because of the constant influx of short-term detainees that doesn’t get counted in those numbers as they come in for a night and are gone the next day. In any case, the numbers just don't match up with the reality inside that jail.

Let me explain a bit by telling you about my experience there… When I was there in November/December of 2006 (on charges I was eventually cleared of), I spent two weeks in what is called a “holding cell” which is a communal cell that holds about 5-6 wall mounted double bunks (upper/lower for a total of 10-12 beds) and about 6-8 plastic cots for an average of 18 beds per cell. However, on any given night there would be about 25 people held in such cells, many of which would have to sleep on the floor with a very thin ripped mat between them and the concrete, which would always get wet in the morning when people took showers and the drains backed up. Even when someone’s bedding and clothes would get soiled with dirty water they wouldn’t be able to get a change of clothes or bedding.
A rough representation of a typical holding cell at the King County Jail.

Well, detainees are only supposed to stay for a day or two in holding cells because even when you get moved into general population, it can still take up to a week to get a change of clothes and commissary. So, when people are held in holding cells for weeks, you get stuck wearing the same clothes and underwear for 3 weeks or more since when you’re in a holding cell you don’t get the chance to order commissary, which is the only way you can get a change of underwear, and you don’t get a change of sheets nor clothes, which is why there have been so many deadly infections at that facility. This is also why each review of the jail cited the excessive time people were held in holding tanks as a major problem… a problem that still hasn’t been addressed.

Of course, when I was there I had open wounds that were left untreated, so my clothes were encrusted with dried blood for weeks before I finally got a change of clothes. Also, in the holding cells, you don’t have access to books and the televisions will often be broken. Needless to say that when you’re hurt and denied any treatment, this only makes the pain you feel much worse since there is nothing you can do to take your mind off of it. Most detainees pace relentlessly to keep their minds occupied, but since I was stuck in my bunk because of my injuries, what I did was laid in my bunk and made decks of cards (pictured at top), dominoes, and chess pieces out of the extra request forms that nobody used each day, and which the guards wouldn’t take from me since they were ordered to ignore my medical requests. I’d give them out to the others just to keep the peace a bit as well since I made about 6 decks of cards and 2 sets of dominoes during that time.

Now, the numbers given might show spare capacity at the jail, but they don’t take into account the daily inflow/outflow that goes on there which boosts the number of detainees at night but then lets several go during the day and doesn’t account for any renovations or construction going on at any given time. (Even on floors that were used there would be cells here and there that were being repaired due to damage such as TVs ripped off wall mounts). This is how, for a jail supposedly underutilized, you would still see more detainees in each cell than those cells were designed to hold and how detainees would get sick from a lack of clean clothes and bedding because it took overly long to get into a regular cell.

I strongly suspect that King County is now open to extending the contracts it has with the area municipalities isn’t because it has free beds in it’s jails… but because of the severe budget shortfalls they have been trying to address. After all, those lucrative fees the county charges for each detainee, (often pre-trial and potentially innocent), housed in those jails to area cities is extra income the county doesn’t want to toss away just yet. The more they can pack in like sardines is all the better, no matter if it risks their well-being or not.

Of course, I'm not advocating the Seattle be allowed to build its own jail. Give Seattle's record of detainee treatment and police misconduct it wouldn't be a good thing. But perhaps with better officer management to reduce wrongful or unnecessary arrests, improvement of diversionary programs like drug court and mental health treatment, and some needed management changes at the existing facilities to improve detainee treatment and processing procedures there wouldn't be a need for another facility and more money would be saved without risking public safety or human rights.

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