Editor’s note: This story focuses on suicide, self-harm and other topics related to psychiatric distress. If you or a loved one is in crisis, resources are available here.
King County Jail conditions that exacerbate isolation and increase the risk for suicide could see potential fixes beginning in the next two weeks, though some changes would stretch into the next year, according to King County Executive Dow Constantine and the county’s jail director.
Constantine is “particularly heartened to hear about the opportunity to restore services to individuals and families in detention,” he said at a news conference, which highlighted the executive’s public safety proposals before the release of his biennial budget plan next week. The two-year proposal also includes the jail’s ongoing work to fix bunks with known suicide risks.
The downtown Seattle jail — one of two adult jails run by the county — has seen an alarming uptick in suicides within the last year. Between August 2021 and July 2022, four people died by suicide in the downtown jail or in the hospital following a jail stay, a rate more than four times the national pre-pandemic jail average, according to Seattle Times reporting.
Families of people in jail custody have cited the jail’s shutdown of in-person visitation and programming like Narcotics Anonymous and group religious services as contributors to their loved ones’ deteriorating mental health.
The jail discontinued group activities, classes and in-person family visitation at the outset of the pandemic as a way to reduce COVID-19 transmission, but those policies have continued as the jail grapples with an understaffing crisis.
The jail is currently down about 100 corrections officers, nearly a fifth of its corrections workforce, since 2020.
On Monday, jail director Allen Nance said the jail plans to restore family visitation by the end of the year and reinstate substance use programs, religious therapy and art services within the next two weeks.
Next month will be the first time people incarcerated in the jail will have access to in-person group activities since the pandemic began, according to the jail.
“Our current staffing situation has also been a challenge,” Nance said at Monday morning’s news conference. “However, we are currently working on a plan to restore visitation for community agencies to work with individuals in our custody, as well as for those individual family members who want to visit their loved ones.”
The proposal to restore visitation and group programming will take place barring another COVID surge, Nance said.
Experts say that policies preventing in-person contact for people incarcerated in the jail exacerbate isolation, a common suicide risk factor.
Three of the people who died by suicide at the jail within the last year also used bunks with a known design flaw for suicide risk to kill themselves, a finding reported by The Seattle Times in June. The jail has been retrofitting bunks to remove the suicide risk since 2021, but isn’t scheduled to finish the work until 2023.
Monday’s preview of Constantine’s proposed public safety plan highlighted the work to fix the bunks as another feature of the executive’s proposed two-year budget.
Jeremiah Bainbridge of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said the timeline for fixing some of the conditions at the jail indicated a lack of urgency around mental health, though he noted that jail is not an appropriate place for people with mental health conditions.
“I just can’t think of another health hazard that they would allow to persist in their equipment,” Bainbridge said.
Nance, the jail director, said the group programming beginning next month will include religious, recovery and educational services, with expanded services in place by the end of the year.