Head of corrections union calls for 2-week quarantined shutdown of Wash. county jails

"We've got so much movement up and down the hallways — we need to stop that movement and get ahead of this," said veteran CO Dennis Folk

By Sara Jean Green
The Seattle Times
TUKWILA, Wash. — Citing a huge surge in the number of people in custody who've tested positive for coronavirus, the president of the King County Corrections Guild on Thursday urged John Diaz, the director of the Department for Adult and Juvenile Detention, to immediately shut down jail operations for a two-week quarantine period.

The letter also references a long-standing staffing crisis, which has regularly required corrections officers and sergeants to work mandatory double shifts.

"With 1,363 inmates currently in custody and 33.82% of those inmates either COVID-positive or in COVID protocols, along with 40 staff members, we must start this quarantine immediately," Dennis Folk, a corrections officer for 23 years and guild president since 2019, wrote in a Thursday letter to Diaz. "We have a fundamental obligation to those in custody to keep them safe from this virus, along with the staff members working these COVID units daily and risking taking this virus home to their families or into the community."

The King County Correctional Facility is shown Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in downtown Seattle.
The King County Correctional Facility is shown Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In a phone interview, Folk later clarified that bookings should be further restricted to people arrested for allegedly committing violent crimes or crimes requiring mandatory arrest, such as driving under the influence and domestic-violence assault.

"We need to put everybody into quarantine. We've got so much movement up and down the hallways — we need to stop that movement and get ahead of this," Folk said.

The jail is an essential service and a shutdown is not possible, according to an emailed statement from the Department for Adult and Juvenile Detention on Thursday in response to a request for comment.

"Felony charges as well as misdemeanors that pose a high public safety threat cannot be ignored. Working together, taking every precaution possible to stop further spread, we can both ensure public safety and protect our employees and individuals they serve in our facilities," the statement says.

Since the start of the pandemic, the detention department implemented misdemeanor booking restrictions to reduce the in-custody jail population, more than tripled capacity for electronic home detention as an alternative to jail, significantly reconfigured housing units and recently expanded the jails' ability to hold court hearings by phone or laptop, according to the statement.

After receiving a request from the department last week, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office is now evaluating whether there are more people who could be moved onto electronic home detention, Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said in an email.

"They themselves also recognized that the inmates in jail for our cases were primarily serious violent offenders, repeat offenders, or had a history of failing to appear when released," McNerthney wrote of DAJD officials.

Still, prosecutors are now also looking at whether it's possible to expedite upcoming sentencing hearings for people facing possible prison time as means of moving them out of the jails, he said.

Public Health — Seattle & King County on Thursday reported a daily average of 5,896 new cases and 63 daily hospitalizations across the county and the state Department of Health (DOH) reported 16,659 new coronavirus cases and 40 new deaths.

The recent surge prompted the temporary suspension of operations at the Olympia Municipal Jail on Jan. 6 due to COVID infections among staff and the in-custody population, and four people who had tested positive were transferred to the Lewis County Jail, the Olympian reported.

The state Department of Corrections reported 883 active COVID cases among people in prison and work release centers as of Thursday. One day earlier, DOC Deputy Secretary Sean Murphy, citing the spread of the omicron variant, announced that all prison visits will be suspended until at least Feb. 3, when the decision will be reevaluated.

The DAJD's online dashboard of coronavirus cases, last updated on Tuesday, shows 1,407 people in custody — the combined population of the King County Jail in downtown Seattle and the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. As of Tuesday, 182 adults in custody and four juveniles in detention were confirmed to have COVID.

By Thursday, the number of in-custody adults who have tested positive increased to 187, said Noah Haglund, a DAJD spokesperson. That's a dramatic increase from the 19 people — 18 in custody at the Regional Justice Center and one who was being treated at Harborview Medical Center — who were infected a little over two weeks ago, according to data Haglund provided on Dec. 28. At that time, 15 jail staff members had also tested positive.

As of late December, 100% of jail staff and 65% of those in custody had been fully vaccinated, up from about 49% of the in-custody population in May, Haglund said at the time.

As of Thursday, 53 jail staff members were off work because of positive test results, according to Folk. He estimated that staff members were equally split between the two jails. Of those in custody who've tested positive, he estimated 144 were at the Regional Justice Center, where DAJD set up isolation and quarantine units early in the pandemic. The remainder of those infected are at the downtown jail and can't be moved for security or medical reasons.

Though DAJD has the budget for 503 corrections officers and 40 sergeants, 90-some officer positions and three sergeant positions are currently unfilled. The department hired 13 new officers this week but with roughly 18 weeks of training ahead of them, "they won't be any value to us till summer," he said.

Folk, who works at the Regional Justice Center, said the department began handing out at-home coronavirus tests to staff on Thursday afternoon. Folk said one of his co-workers — who hadn't been feeling well and had been trying to schedule a test in the community — immediately took one of the at-home tests, tested positive, and went home early.

"I'm guessing there will be quite a few more," Folk said.
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