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King County jail system faces largest COVID-19 outbreak of pandemic

In the last week, cases of COVID-19 at the county jails in Kent and Seattle have spiked to record levels.

SEATTLE — The King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that’s larger than any the jail system has seen throughout the duration of the pandemic.

The county operates two jails that currently house approximately 1,300 inmates: The King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle and the Maleng Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent.

As of Monday, the county said 69 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and 40 staff members are out on leave due to the virus. According to leaders of the King County Corrections Guild, the spike in cases began last week and could have been prevented.

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“We knew that it would be a matter of time before there was an outbreak,” Corrections Officer Sundee Berg, the guild's vice president, said.

In November and early December, the county transferred approximately 200 inmates from the RJC to the downtown Seattle jail in an effort to cut down on staff overtime, according to a DAJD official. At the RJC, the inmates were housed in single-occupancy cells. At the Seattle jail, they were housed in dormitory-style units, with approximately 18 people living in each enclosed unit, where social distancing was not possible.

“And we think by doing that, they brought on this COVID crisis,” Guild President Dennis Folk said.

A DAJD spokesperson said the transfer of inmates occurred when COVID-19 cases were low.

“The transfer of inmates and resources from the MRJC (Kent facility) to KCCF (Seattle location) occurred in late November and early December, when our case counts were in the low single digits. This was done in coordination with Jail Health Services to help alleviate staffing issues. We are readjusting housing assignments now based on the current number COVID-19 cases in our facilities,” wrote spokesperson Noah Haglund in a statement to KING 5. "As with previous increases of COVID-19 cases [at] our jails, the current situation coincides with widespread transmission in our community."

Union leaders said the decision to house inmates in a congregate setting was irresponsible.

“Absolutely, absolutely. Because I think it was done to basically address the staffing, the lack of staffing in the facilities,” Berg said. “It wasn’t done obviously for anybody’s safety or well-being.”

According to the union, the COVID-19 flare-up is just the latest snowball effect of a decades-old staffing problem the county has not been able to fix. Public records show many officers are routinely forced to work mandatory overtime, 16-hour shifts, to fill gaps. Officers said that puts them in harm’s way of problems such as sleep deprivation, burnout and the virus itself.

“With this outbreak, we’re not fulfilling our obligation to the public or to the inmates,” Folk said. “[The worst part is] just the mere exhaustion and I think the fear. ‘Hey, am I going to get it today? Am I going to take this home to my family?’”

“'Are we in front of the bus? Everyday. [Do we have the] potential to get run over? Every day,'” 26-year veteran Corrections Officer and shift representative Fred McKinney said.

The county said they are working to solve the long-term staffing shortages and protect the health and safety of both inmates and personnel.

“This all comes at a time when corrections and many other industries nationwide are facing fierce competition for qualified applicants. Hiring will continue to be a priority for us, and we have been actively recruiting to fill vacancies. We continue to explore the causes of mandatory overtime and will aggressively pursue longer-term solutions,” Haglund wrote. “Staff at the Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention continue to perform outstanding work under very challenging circumstances.”