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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Seattle Doesn’t Need to Build a New Jail

posted by on June 26 at 13:24 PM

Back in 1999, King County released a study estimating that in ten years, the county’s inmate population would swell to around 4,500, maxing out the capacities at the King County Jail (KCJ) in downtown Seattle and the Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent. Consquently, every city in the county was informed that in 2012, their misdemeanor offenders would no longer be accepted at King County’s jails.

Because of the impending deadline, Seattle, Bellevue, Renton and other nearby cities have been scrambling to come up with a solution for a new jail site. There’s been talk of cities collaborating to build another regional jail, and Seattle has been looking at building its own facility at one of four sites around the city. However, this plan has drawn fire from neighborhood groups like Citizens Against Jails in North Seattle (CAJINS!), the Highland Park Action Committee and Greenwood Area Involved Neighbors, who understandably don’t want a jail in their backyard.

Despite the county’s upcoming deadline, Seattle may not need a new jail after all —because, as it turns out, the county’s 1999 study was just flat-out wrong about an impending prison population boom.

King County has reassessed its jail population numbers, and they’re not even close to the estimates given almost a decade ago.


The light gray bars show the county’s 1999 prison population projections, and the black bars show the current estimates. If those numbers prove accurate, the county will still have about 400 empty beds, more than enough to meet cities’ needs for the time being.

Right now, the county makes 330 beds available between both facilities to cities, which pay $108 per bed, and the state Department of Corrections also “rents” 215 beds from the county. But neither jail is anywhere close to full. About 400 of the nearly 1,700 beds at KCJ are empty—three of the facilities’ eleven floors are currently shut down for renovations—and the RJC has room for another 500 prisoners.


According to King County Jail’s spokesman, Major William Hayes, the county’s population projections have changed so drastically in the last decade because of diversion programs like drug court and work release. Although upcoming cuts to budget cuts to drug and mental health courts could increase the number of people going to jail instead of diversion programs, Hayes—who says he’s never seen a jail reach capacity in the 24 years he’s been with the county—says “we could handle quite a few more [inmates]…if we needed to.” However, Hayes also cautions that the jail population “can change overnight.”

Hayes says the county is open to discussing a contract extension with Seattle, an idea that’s also been getting a lot of support from at least one member of the King County Council.

Later next month, Seattle will finish up two feasibility studies and decide whether to build a jail with several Eastside cities, but don’t be surprised if the city and the county find a way to work things out.

Photo by Manuel W. via Flickr.

RSS icon Comments


Once they build a jail, they have to fill it to make money. The goal is not civil protection...

Posted by P to the J | June 26, 2008 1:42 PM

You are right that the proposed cuts to the criminal justice budget, especially those to the KCPAO and the courts, will have an enormous impact on prison population. Not only will alternatives such as the drug and mental health courts disappear, but City of Seattle (and other municipalities within the county) will be held responsible for much larger number of cases as KCPAO offloads whole classes of misdemeanors to its jurisdiction. Ironically, misdemeanor designation for certain crimes (e.g., car theft) can result in longer sentences in Seattle Muni than in the county court.

I don't know if this means that the city needs to build a jail or not, but we're certainly going to have more inmates soon enough.

Posted by MarriedToTheLaw | June 26, 2008 1:43 PM

Get Golob on that graph, it sure looks fishy to me.

Posted by wisepunk | June 26, 2008 2:19 PM

Whatever, you are completely wrong and have no idea what you are talking about?

Have you ever been inside king county jail?

I spent a weeks there after the WTO, and a week in jail in NYC and in San Francisco county.

Even ten years ago, King County jail was massively overcrowded compared to the jails in the two other places. You say it's not crowded but you don't have shit to base it off other than numbers.

Posted by Andrew | June 26, 2008 2:23 PM

Prison population projections are based on the number of school children who can't read by the third grade. Does that help?

Posted by Y.F. | June 26, 2008 2:23 PM


Um. After the WTO? The jail was crowded after the WTO? Was it really? Huh. Well I'm stumped.

Posted by elenchos | June 26, 2008 2:39 PM

Because basing statistical analysis off of numbers would be completely ridiculous.


Posted by Jonah S | June 26, 2008 2:58 PM

Trust me, it's still overcrowded.

While the general population cells aren't at full capacity, the holding cells are always over capacity. The holding cells, (large rooms with an average of 12-14 wall-mounted bunks and 4-6 temporary cots) are only supposed to temporarily house detainees for a couple days, until room is found in GP for that detainee.

Well, those holding cells averaged about 20 a night, sometimes up to 25 people would be in there, several on the floor. I even saw one guy get his bedding soaked while he was sleeping by dirty water coming up through the bathroom floor drain that overflowed.

It's not uncommon for it to take up to two weeks for that to happen. The problem in that is that while in a holding cell, you don't get commissary and you don't get a change of clothes and bedding. Also, once moved to GP it can take an additional week before you get a chance to order goods (like soap and underwear) from commissary and get that change of clothes.

While I was there a little over a year ago, I had open and undressed wounds and didn't get a chance to order underwear or get a change of clothes for a bit over two weeks because I spent about two weeks in a holding cell. All that time with dried and crusted blood on my outfit and no change of underwear... and you're not allowed to clean them there either.

I got pretty sick, my blood pressure dropped pretty low a little over a week in and I couldn't even get a single Tylenol for my cracked ribs and busted nose. I lost 30 pounds because I was so sick there, and it's only by some sort of miracle I didn't get MRSA like so many other detainees have (and now have a class action suit against that place for it).

You might think the people put there deserve to be treated like that, but remember that a lot of people held there are pre-trial detainees who haven't had their day in court. Some of them, like me, end up being innocent of their charges.

I'm not saying Seattle should be allowed to build a jail, I think they would be worse at managing one than King County has been... but don't go away from those figures thinking that they don't have overcrowding issues at that jail.

Posted by unwelcomed | June 26, 2008 3:52 PM

Amending the impound ordinance also had an effect.

Posted by Trevor | June 26, 2008 4:36 PM

Want to deal with the city and county budget crisis?

Stop arresting people for victimless crimes, and fill the jails with CEOs and CFOs who harm more people while confiscating their assets.

Problem solved.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 26, 2008 7:24 PM

The problem isn't that they don't have the physical space possibly available in KCJ. The renovations, from what I've been told by the jail, have been going on for years, with no real end in sight, and no real expectation that there will actually be an increase in usable space. Furthermore, they're having a horrible time retaining and hiring officers. The higher the census, the more officers needed - as it is, the ones that are there are not enough, and it's the feeling of some administrators that this is the cause of some of the abuses within the jail.

KCJ is a pretty horrible facility, having been able to work within it's walls and move freely from floor to floor (but not within the tanks).

You know that sales tax increase that was supposed to fund more mental health programs (including treatment court services and such?) Six months after we were told this was going to solve all our problems, increase funding and services, decrease caseloads, etc., we're now told of a budget shortfall, and that instead of expanding services, we're looking at our own jobs.

Ahhhh politics in an economic recession. Reminds me of watching The Wire.

Posted by Anonymous | June 28, 2008 9:35 AM

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