As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, Washington’s correctional facilities are significantly reducing their inmate populations and prioritizing jail bed space for those who commit violent crimes to keep inmates, jail employees and visitors safe.
The King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention has taken the emergency action at all correctional facilities, including the King County jail, Kent Regional Justice Center jail and the South Correctional Entity (SCORE).
As of March 17, King County correctional facilities are no longer accepting people who are arrested for violating the terms of their state Department of Corrections (DOC) community supervision, said Chad Lewis, a King County spokesperson.
County officials and criminal justice partners are also working with the DOC to transfer anyone who is in a King County correctional facility on a DOC warrant back to state custody, according to a press release sent on Friday.
“It’s not just release, it’s the number of people entering the facility to begin with,” Lewis said.
Officials say they are also taking emergency precautions to prevent the exposure or transmission of the virus.
Before being booked, every individual who arrives at a King County correctional facility receives a health screening. All staff and professional visitors have their temperature taken upon arrival to the facilities.
So far, only one staff member at the King County Correctional Facility in Seattle tested positive for COVID-19 as of March 23. Last week, a correctional officer at the facility reported testing positive.
The man called his shift commander on March 16 to report that he had tested positive, and his last day of work at the jail was on March 8.
As of Friday, March 20, there were no individuals in custody who have tested positive for COVID-19.
King County correctional facilities have already seen a significant decrease in thier inmate populations due to these efforts. On March 19, there were 1,766 people in custody at adult correctional facilities, a reduction from 1,940 on March 1. There were fewer than 40 youth at the Children and Family Justice Center.
These initiatives could free up 180 additional jail beds at King County correctional facilities by the end of this week (March 27).
The availability of these beds is a two-fold benefit, Lewis said.
While prioritizing jail beds takes those who pose the greatest risk to public safety off of the streets, it also helps health services staff at the jail ensure they can provide the quality care to inmates if, or when, they show signs of COVID-19, Lewis said. It also provides adequate space for social distancing.
Inmates who are without symptoms but at a high risk for contracting COVID-19, those who are ages 60 and older or have underlying health conditions, have been transferred to a housing unit at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent to reduce exposure to the larger population at the King County jail, the website states.
“The county is exploring all options to further reduce the number of people in custody as quickly and safely as possible for the health of the entire community,” the release states.
Jail leadership has also asked law enforcement to prioritize booking people into correctional facilities for violent crimes against people during the pandemic, which the release states will create more opportunities and space in the facilities.
In the adult divisions of King County jail in Seattle and Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, all public visitations have been canceled, although professional window visitations and professional face-to-face visits will continue as normal.
Instead, video visits are now available at no cost for users.
For inmates, group activities have been canceled and officials are looking for ways to continue access to education and religious services. Meanwhile access to recreational programs such as cards, games, books, movies and the recreational yard have increased.
Cleaning of facilities and screening evaluations of all employees and professional visitors has also increased.
All face-to-face visitation has been suspended in the juvenile division, replaced by the option for youth to connect with parents or guardians via phone calls or video at no cost.
While the Seattle Public School district closed earlier this month, juveniles in custody are still following the school schedule and engaging in education activities.
Religious services are still being conducted with social distancing practices being encouraged.
SCORE is a jail in Des Moines, comprising six member cities — Auburn, Burien, Des Moines, Renton, SeaTac and Tukwila — and several contract agencies.
To prepare for a potential outbreak, SCORE reduced the inmate population nearly in half to safely manage the inmates.
SCORE is built to house 802 individuals, and the facility generally has more than 600 on average, Schrum said. Now since the outbreak, the inmate population is just under 400 to prepare for the possibility of an outbreak at the facility.
As of Monday, March 23, there are no suspected or confirmed cases COVID-19 among staff or inmates. There are also no inmates or employees quarantined at the moment.
“Quite frankly, that’s why our other mitigation measures are so important right now,” said the jail’s executive director Devon Schrum, who declared a state of emergency on March 13.
Having no cases is largely due to the increase in preventative health measures, Schrum noted.
“We know it (the virus) will hit here, it’s just now thinking ‘how can we reduce the impact of when it does hit SCORE?’” she said.
In addition, through contracts with the Department of Corrections, the jail has been able to essentially put a “cap” on the amount of DOC inmates transferred to SCORE. Similar to King County jail, Schrum said they have also prioritized mandatory bookings for violent crimes as determined by the jurisdictions making the arrests.
Reducing the inmate population is also done by asking officers to be thoughtful about the circumstances of who and when someone is brought to the facility.
“Don’t bring them here if they don’t need to be here,” Schrum said.
The facility’s lobby is closed, and some programming and jail tours have been stopped. Fees for video visits have been temporarily waived.
All necessary visitors complete additional health screening procedures upon arrival.
On-site health care providers ask about recent travel, known exposure, any recent history of red-flag symptoms, and temperatures are taken. The jail is also cleaned four times a day.
The biggest impact of the virus has been the necessary suspension of all SCORE volunteers, a decision Schrum said was made “with a heavy heart.”
“Out of all of this, [that was] one of the hardest decisions to make,” she said.
On average, about 40 dedicated volunteers are regularly in and out of the facility, she said. Volunteers often clean the facility or host events like college fairs and others.
Chaplains and librarians have also been suspended for the time being, although inmates still have a large amount of reading materials and books and the facility is working to get video messages for religious services, Schrum said.
While inmate freedom is on hold when they are booked into the facility, the worries of the outside world never cease.
“Everybody has some anxiety,” she said of the concerns inside SCORE. “Inmates here are not just worried about an outbreak in the jail, but also are worried about their families at home.”
Staffing-wise, Schrum worried the statewide cancellations of schools would be a blow to staffing levels as many are working parents, but she said this luckily hasn’t been the case.
For now, hiring has been halted.
There’s no shortage in staff and the facility has not seen a significant rise in any employees calling out sick, she said.
The biggest impact so far is the access to personal protection equipment (PPE), which Schrum said is a common concern for many agencies across the hotbed region and the nation amid the outbreak.
SCORE has a “small supply” of personal protective equipment that is being reserved for if, or when, any intimates need to be quarantined, she said.
“We certainly don’t have enough PPE,” Schrum said. “But that goes for everyone.”
Emergency requests have been made, and SCORE’s major need is for N-95 face masks and paper gowns.
“It is scary,” Schrum said. “… We’re doing everything we can to take very good care of the people we have here.”