On Feb. 27, community organizers gathered outside the King County administration building in downtown Seattle to call for the jail’s shutdown after multiple high-profile deaths in the facility. Press conference speakers argued that the jail was not fit for human habitation.
Since 2019, 17 people have died in King County’s jails, 14 of whom were in the King County Correctional Facility in Seattle. This includes eight people who died by suicide. Community organizer Aretha Basu said the death of Michael Rowland in April 2022 was a catalyst for community groups to launch the campaign to shut down the jail.
“We are here because last April, one of those deaths was Michael Rowland,” Basu said. “Sixty-three years old, he was Black, disabled, unhoused and killed within half an hour of arriving at the jail.”
Basu said that Rowland was arrested at a hotel after asking for food. She said that instead of administering care during a mental health crisis, police restrained him. Once at the jail, the brutality escalated.
“Jail guards used the same restraint Derek Chauvin used on George Floyd,” Basu said. “Within minutes, Michael Rowland was dead. For us, Michael Rowland’s murder was the last straw.”
Conditions in the jail have deteriorated significantly over the past few years. Organizers said that people are locked up for 23 hours a day and have little to no access to medical or mental health care. Pandemic-era policies have only made the experience more isolating and escalated staff shortages. In fall 2022, PubliCola reported that the facility lacked clean water, forcing people to rely on bottled water. Even after tap water access was restored, jailed people reported that the water was still brown.
Attorney Sadé Smith said that all agencies share blame for the crisis.
“The mayor and the county executives dictate the type of charges people are locked up for,” Smith said. “Cops use those dictates to target our most vulnerable community members and throw them in the King County jail. Prosecutors ask for bail and the courts order it. The jail’s violence is reinforced at every level of local government.”
Activists have proposed a number of solutions to help mitigate the crisis in the jail, including prohibiting law enforcement from seeking admission for people they arrest who experience mental health crises. They are also calling on lawmakers to stop penalizing mental health crises and on prosecutors and judges to not seek or grant bail.
Independent of the campaign, the ACLU of Washington has also taken action on the issue. On Feb. 24, the organization sued King County, claiming that the county had violated a 1998 settlement which guaranteed access to medical care and other basic needs.
In a July 2020 speech, King County Executive Dow Constantine said that the jail was no longer fit for its purpose and pledged to close it.
Constantine’s spokesperson wrote to Real Change that the executive concurred with community organizers’ concerns over the state of the jail and that he still agreed that the jail will eventually be replaced. The spokesperson also wrote that the county had taken steps to address staffing shortages and improve operations but that “restricting felony bookings is not the answer.”
In a Feb. 27 Seattle Times op-ed, the Seattle and King County prosecutors put some of the blame for the jail’s treatment of mentally ill people on the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services, writing that the backlog in mental health institution beds has led to people languishing in the jail when they shouldn’t.
Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, rejected these claims. In a statement, she wrote that prosecutors’ proposed solutions of deeming more people competent to stand trial is not the answer and that they should divert such cases instead.
“Competency restoration is not treatment — it just enables people to be processed by the criminal legal system,” she wrote. “It does not connect them to ongoing care.”
Khandelwal also spoke at the press conference, joining calls to restrict booking and bail. She said that about 95 percent of people in the jail are there simply because they cannot afford bail and that 38 percent are Black, despite the fact that Black people make up only 7 percent of the county’s population.
“We must stop fueling the racist carceral system,” Khandelwal said. “We must stop caging those who are too poor to pay their bail and those who are too mentally ill to even understand the charges.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Mar. 8-14, 2023 issue.