Bookings suspended at Wash. jail as pandemic, influx of mentally ill spurs overcrowding

Officials are considering suspending COVID-19 protocols to clear space for new arrivals


By Hayley Day
The Daily News
        
LONGVIEW, Wash. — A Kelso man — who was arrested Monday morning on Cowlitz Indian Tribe property with what was believed to be methamphetamines — was not held for drug possession or the misdemeanor for trespassing.

Hours later, he was arrested again by Longview police for suspicion of vehicle theft.

Two factors contributed to his morning release: drug possession is no longer a felony offense in Washington, and the Cowlitz County Jail was temporarily too congested to book for most lesser crimes.

COVID-19 quarantining and an influx of inmates with behavioral health needs are taking extra space in the jail — sometimes preventing jailers from accepting new arrestees.

Officials are considering suspending COVID-19 quarantines for new bookings to clear space for new arrivals and those with mental illnesses.

Overcrowding

Cowlitz County Corrections Director Marin Fox said the jail has temporarily suspended bookings for lesser crimes about four times since the pandemic started. Bookings never had been suspended before the pandemic in the facility's roughly 15-year existence, she said.

In the most recent instance, most misdemeanor charges — excluding DUIs and domestic violence cases — could not be booked Saturday through Wednesday due to overcrowding.

The jail houses fewer people today because quarantined inmates and those with behavioral health needs are housed in cells by themselves. The general population shares cells. Before the pandemic, the jail could house up to about 270 inmates; it can handle about 140 now.

"The jail is experiencing unprecedented numbers of mentally ill inmates that require being alone," Fox said.

The state does not require new inmates to be quarantined, but encourages facilities to do what they can in the space they have. About 10 cells are dedicated to quarantining inmates for 72 hours and testing them twice for COVID-19 before they can join the rest of the population.

The most recent temporary suspension of bookings started Saturday evening, after an inmate attempted suicide, another said they were suicidal and required an evaluation and a third said they had swallowed drugs.

"I knew it was a holiday weekend and we would not be able to sustain if restrictions weren't put in place," she said.

By Tuesday — even with the bookings paused — all of the cells were full in the units for quarantining, new bookings, mental health and solitary confinement.

Inmates with behavioral health needs often are housed in other units when space runs out in their designated section.

Law changes

With the jail not accepting most misdemeanors, a felony drug possession arrest would have kept a Kelso man in jail Monday and prevented a suspected vehicle theft, said Longview Capt. Branden McNew.

Arrests for small amounts of drugs have been barred in Washington since a February state Supreme Court decision. The replacement law goes into effect July 25 and downgrades the charge from a felony to misdemeanor.

"Had we arrested and booked (him) on a felony charge, he wouldn't have been out to steal this vehicle," McNew said.

Police received a report of a trespasser on Cowlitz Indian Tribe property in the 900 block of Fir Street around 5 a.m. Monday. When the man refused to leave, Longview officers detained him, and found and confiscated what police suspect to be methamphetamines, McNew said.

Police arrested Mathew Martinez, 37, of Kelso, on suspicion of the misdemeanor of criminal trespassing but could not book him into jail because there was no room and he was released, McNew said.

Around 2:30 p.m., Longview police received a report of a stolen truck in the 900 block of Ninth Avenue. About two hours later, Martinez was spotted in front of the vehicle, McNew said. Police asked him to step away from the truck, but instead he sped away to the 200 block of Douglass Street, where he jumped out of the vehicle, ran on foot and was detained by police.

Longview officers were then able to arrest and book Martinez for suspicion of the felony of motor vehicle theft, as well as the misdemeanors of obstructing a public servant and first-degree criminal trespassing.
     
(c)2021 The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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