Federal inspectors have departed King County Jail after two years of monitoring its safety and civil rights procedures, prompting Claudia Balducci, director of the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention to proclaim the old lock-up finally "balances the safety of our citizens with the rights of inmates." It's an encouraging moment for a jail where too many died unnecessarily in recent years. But inspectors left with a word of caution: inmates are still dying at 5th and James.
Constantine's office said the reforms include: Updating the jail's use-of-force policies, discontinuation of the "hair hold" by jail officers as a defensive tactic, more training for officers and jail health staff, and improved clinical assessments of inmates deemed currently or recently at risk for suicide. Plumbing and other fixtures have also been replaced with more suicide-resistant models.
As Seattle Weekly has been reporting since 2005, inmates have regularly taken advantage of exposed plumbing, fixtures and wires to commit suicide. They include inmates who have hanged themselves using light fixtures and TV power cords. Deaths by swallowing toxic liquid, intentionally choking on a swallowed object, and overdosing on hoarded medicines were also recorded.
Using hanging techniques, three inmates "slumped" to their deaths during one month in 2010. According to jail documents, with fewer ways to insert a sheet or other objects into overhead devices and dangle to their deaths, inmates tied sheets or clothing to beds and fixtures, then sat or leaned forward as their nooses asphyxiated them. Another hanged himself with ripped up sheets and delayed attempts by guards to save him by blocking his cell door with his own court documents.
Negligence contributed to other deaths at the 25-year-old facility, with an average monthly inmate count of 1,320. A 51-year-old inmate (who lost consciousness and split open her head in a fall upon being booked, later told a cellmate she was "dope sick" and had lost control of some bodily functions, drank from a cup of dangerous jail chemical disinfectant left in her cell, and vomited and made gagging sounds throughout the night) was found dead 30 hours after entering the jail. Another inmate failed to receive proper medical treatment even after complaining that his "liver exploded," and died.
The medical failures date back years. Just last month, a Seattle woman was awarded $975,000 in damages for civil rights violations from 1997 when jail staff locked the pregnant inmate in a cell and ignored her for six days; she got help only after a guard heard a newborn baby crying.
Lindsay Hayes, the DOJ's lead monitor, praised the county for its reform efforts in his ninth and final monitoring report issued in January (below). But, "With that said," he wrote, "the monitoring team leaves King County with some concerns:
Unfortunately, despite a suicide prevention program that has attained substantial compliance with this agreement, there were five (5) inmate suicides in the King County Jail system during 2010-11...These deaths have resulted in a two-year suicide rate that is higher than the most recently reported average rate for other county jails throughout the country.
That included, as Hayes noted in his report, the suicide death of an inmate that occurred during the final monitoring period - a 49-year-old King County man who died in September.
Hayes said he felt jail officials and staff were taking their responsibilities seriously to prevent suicides and remained committed to reducing the body count. Constantine seconded that, indicating the end of the monitoring didn't mean the end of vigilance.
"These findings from the Justice Department affirm the reforms we've made in two short years," he says, "while reminding us that effective reform must be ongoing and consistent over the long haul."