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King County jails in ‘crisis mode’ with understaffing, mandatory overtime

The King County Corrections Guild says officers are quitting due to burn out, as managers routinely assign mandatory 16-hour days.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — The King County Corrections Guild says understaffing at the two county jails is contributing to burn out, public safety risks, officer health problems, and a burden for taxpayers.

“We’re in a full crisis mode,” said Guild President Dennis Folk.

Currently, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) has 60 unfilled positions for officers, with 10 more people leaving soon due to the jails’ inability to accommodate their vaccine exemptions for religious reasons. Folk expects even more vacancies before the end of the year as officers are fed up with mandatory overtime being a routine practice to fill staffing gaps.

“The biggest thing that faces us is this mandatory overtime crisis,” Folk said.

According to the Guild, managers at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle and the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent routinely assign mandatory overtime that equates to a 16-hour workday. 

Officer Michelle Helpenstell, a 24-year veteran, said she’s been assigned mandatory overtime, 16-hour shifts, nearly every day in all of 2021. If she drives home from the downtown Seattle jail to her home in Puyallup, she says she will get only two to three hours of sleep before having to return to work. Sleep deprivation has been a safety risk for her. At one point, after three 16-hours shifts in a row, she said she fell asleep at the wheel and had to swerve to avoid another motorist.

“That’s when I realized I had to sleep in the jail. That was a choice I had to make for me because it wasn’t safe for me to drive home,” Helpenstell said.

Sleeping in the jail means popping up one of the small tents the county has purchased for officers who don’t want to risk driving home in a sleep deprived state. There are six "sleeping pods" for female officers at the downtown jail and 12 for male officers. The pods are set up in spaces formerly used to house inmates.

For several years, Folk worked the graveyard shift at the downtown jail. He said he lived at work, missing family events and his children’s activities as was continually assigned mandatory overtime.

“I would start my shift on Sunday night,” Folk said. “I would be too tired to commute home, so I would sleep in the jail in a former jail cell, in an inmate bunk. I would get up, eat out of a vending machine, do my next 16-hour shift and then I wouldn’t go home until Friday morning.”

In a detailed statement to KING 5, the DAJD said hiring more staff is a high priority and they are implementing several initiatives to work on the understaffing problem.

“This has been a challenge for corrections agencies throughout the country, and we find ourselves competing with one another for qualified recruits,” wrote Noah Haglund, DAJD communications specialist. “We have taken major steps over the course of this year to address staffing shortfalls, both by adjusting our immediate operations and ramping up our hiring efforts.”

But understaffing has been a long-documented problem for the DAJD. In 2007, the Guild took out a full-page advertisement in The Seattle Times to appeal to the public for support. The ad said they were "understaffed," and the jail was "forcing officers to work 16 hours a day."

Two years later, in 2009, an arbitrator overseeing a union issue wrote the mandatory overtime practice is "unsafe … inefficient … and … cruel."

“It’s something that’s plagued us for years,” Folk said.

Yet the problem got worse.

In 2008, records show the county assigned 32,000 hours of mandatory overtime to corrections officers. The number climbed to 72,000 in 2019.

Helpenstell said for a sleep deprived officer the riskiest assignment is transporting an inmate into the public, such as to Harborview for medical attention.

“Your attention’s diverted. You’re trying to take care of the inmate. You’re trying to keep everyone safe, and it’s a safety hazard … 100 percent [it’s a public safety risk].”

Overtime has cost King County taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the years.

The KING 5 Investigators found in 2019, King County Corrections overtime cost well over $12 million. In 2020, due to COVID-19, the jails drastically cut inmate populations, which resulted in less overtime. The 2020 total cost was more than $9 million.

“We have an obligation to the citizens of King County to run our jail efficiently and it’s not being run efficiently. And we’re being forced to pay overtime to these officers than can be managed better. It’s waste and abuse,” Folk said. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

According to DAJD, some of county’s efforts to reduce mandatory overtime include offering sign-on bonuses of up to $10,000 for a successful applicant. Current employees can earn a referral incentive up of up to $2500 for each successful applicant.

In addition, the county is moving inmates from the jail in Kent to downtown Seattle as a way to streamline operations and reduce overtime.

“Staff at the Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention have been doing an outstanding job under very challenging conditions, especially since we enacted pandemic protocols in early 2020. We are eager to find new ways to support our dedicated employees who have done so much to support the safety of our community and the people in our temporary care,” Haglund wrote.