Black people jailed in King County generally face harsher discipline and more restrictive confinement than incarcerated people of other races, and fights, assaults and other violent episodes that occur frequently within the county’s two adult jails are partly driven by the practice of “double-bunking” — or putting two people in the close confines of a single cell.
These and other key findings are the result of a sweeping audit of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention’s (DAJD) jail operations presented Tuesday to the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee.
The problems identified by the audit — including documented incidents of violence, deaths in custody, racial disparities among the incarcerated and a dearth of psychiatric resources for an increasing number of people with serious mental illnesses — generally exist because the county’s corrections department “lacks a robust risk management system to help keep the people in its care safe,” according to the report by the King County Auditor’s Office.
The audit details 25 recommendations aimed at establishing a new risk management approach to consistently assess and improve jail safety. The plan should include, among other things, policies that prevent assigning more than one person to the same cell, making more cells suicide-resistant, increasing mental health resources for those incarcerated and reducing racial inequities in discipline and housing, the auditors said.
DAJD Director John Diaz told council members Tuesday that he welcomed the recommendations as a step in furthering goals of safety and racial equity.
“We took every one of those recommendations seriously and there is going to be a written plan,” Diaz said. “… I think those were all good questions that needed to be explored deeply.”
The county’s corrections department will follow up on the recommendations in a timely way, seeking advice from university researchers and nationally recognized experts to address areas of improvement, he said.
But based on corrections officials’ initial written response to the audit findings, auditors cited “two overarching concerns”: First, that the department agreed with some findings “without indicating that it plans to change current practices, increasing the likelihood that these recommendations may not be implemented,” and second, that the department’s comments for some recommendations suggest “that the agency does not understand what steps are necessary for implementation.”
Each year, the audit says, more than 30,000 people are booked into the county’s two adult jails: the King County Jail in downtown Seattle and the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
Until the pandemic, the two jails housed about 2,000 people on average per day, though that number dropped to an average of about 1,300 in 2020. A disproportionate number of Black (36%) and Indigenous (3%) people were incarcerated compared to the racial makeup of the county’s population, which is about 7% Black and 1% Indigenous, the audit found. Approximately 85% of those incarcerated are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted of a crime.
But local jails in Washington aren’t subject to state oversight, which reduces transparency and accountability for identifying and addressing problems within the jails, the audit said.
In King County’s two adult jails, the audit found fights, assaults and other violent incidents are common and result in injuries to both incarcerated people and staff.
The audit determined the county’s “practice of assigning two people to the same cell (double-bunking) contributes to this danger,” noting data showed a big drop in the number of assaults and fights in 2020 “when, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, use of two-person cells stopped” at the King County Jail in downtown Seattle.
Overall last year, the population at the King County Jail declined by 47%, with fights and assaults dropping by 63%, the audit found.
Still, even with the big reduction in overall population last year, the audit noted “the jail does not have enough psychiatric housing to provide consistent care to the increasing number of people with serious mental illness in custody.”
That means that people with serious mental illness are increasingly being housed in areas of the jails that are not designed to provide treatment.
“Since the fourth quarter of 2019, on average each day, more than 10 people who need psychiatric housing are not placed in psychiatric housing,” the audit found. “At least one person has died in DAJD custody every year since 2009, and four suicides took place between 2017 and 2020. None of these took place in units with suicide resistant cells.”
Auditors analyzed demographic data of roughly 106,00 county jail bookings between 2017 and 2019 to help identify racial disparities in the jails’ populations. They also looked at disproportionality in assessments used to classify a person’s risk and security levels.
“We found racial disparities in discipline and housing that harm Black people and benefit white people on average,” the audit concluded. “Black people were more likely to be in higher security units, get infractions for breaking the rules and spend more time in restrictive housing as punishment. Effects of these inequities can go beyond the jail and have lasting negative health impacts.”
“The Council’s Law and Justice Committee will be digging in on the report as well and considering any potential next steps,” council spokesperson Daniel DeMay said.
The auditor’s office also plans to follow up on its recommendations this fall, with a goal of publishing a report on the success of implementing recommendations by April 2022, he said.