Seattle jail resumes use of tap water after month of discoloration

Jail officials had been distributing bottled water "out of an abundance of caution" since Sept. 29


By Elise Takahama and Amanda Zhou
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — King County's downtown Seattle jail resumed use of city tap water Tuesday after numerous tests showed the water meets drinking standards, according to the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.

Jail officials had been distributing bottled water "out of an abundance of caution" to those incarcerated since Sept. 29 after reports of cloudy water.

Previous and recent tests showed the water meets both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Health standards for drinking, spokesperson Noah Haglund said.

The cloudiness was intermittent, according to Haglund, who said jail staff reported no appearance of "discoloration or unusual cloudiness" in the tap water Wednesday.

The jail was connected to the city water supply the entire time testing was being done. Last year, the jail finished a project that replaced a large portion of its water distribution system, Haglund said. In the last month, a Seattle Public Utilities water quality expert visited the jail and did not identify any operational concerns.

Haglund said people in custody received water "at mealtimes and on request" and that laundry, showers and restrooms were unaffected.

"Everyone should have ample access," he said in an October email.

Molly Gilbert, president of the King County Public Defenders union, disagreed with the characterization that those incarcerated had plenty of water.

While bottled water was handed out, the jail implemented a one-bottle-at-a-time policy, leaving many inmates to "decide between hydration and hygiene," she previously told The Seattle Times.

The jail has long been understaffed, and employees do not have time to hand out water bottles as frequently as needed, she said.

"We have people who are dehydrated, not brushing teeth and not having access to showers," Gilbert said.

Previous reporting by The Seattle Times showed that since the beginning of 2020, staff vacancies have risen from 25 open positions to nearly 100 — almost a fifth of the jail's corrections officer workforce. The shortage also affects opportunity for visitation.

Last week, the King County Jail said it planned to reopen "limited in-person visitation" in early November for people who have less access to video visits. Some in-person group programming like Bible studies and a high school completion program has resumed.

King County, the King County Corrections Guild and the King County Juvenile Detention Guild have also recently ratified new agreements to provide general wage increases of 4% to 6% each year, retention bonuses and new overtime premiums.

The news website PubliCola first reported the discolored water in September.

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