The City of Seattle is asking Yakima County and state corrections officials why newly released prisoners were dropped off underneath Interstate 5 in a downtown area just blocks from city hall.

A video sent to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office by an unidentified person captured a moment near 5th and James on April 8. In the video, a corrections officer is seen removing the handcuffs from three people who are then seen walking away. The area is frequented by many homeless people who camp under the I-5 structure.

The incident prompted Durkan to ask the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) why the people were released without any supervision or guidance.

DOC Director Steve Sinclair wrote Durkan on April 12 saying the video also raised concerns among corrections officials.

“What we determined is these are not Washington State Department of Corrections employees and are actually Yakima County Sheriff’s Office employees. The persons being transported are WADOC violators being returned from confinement time served at Yakima County Jail,” Sinclair wrote. “We asked Yakima County why this was taking place. The Yakima County Jail reported that dropping off in a parking lot was not standard practice. They are looking into the reason this occurred and we will share this information with you once we receive it.”

Sinclair’s letter notes that Yakima County transports violators who have completed their sentences to King County. In the past, he said, they would be dropped at the King County Jail.

Durkan responded on April 19 noting that DOC released about 1,500 individuals convicted of felonies from prison in King County in 2018.

“Best practices around reentry require an individualized transition plan that prescribes a warm handoff from the institution to the individuals’ family and community and appropriate services. Individuals should not simply be dropped on a street in Seattle, whether by the courthouse or under the freeway,” Durkan wrote. “We know that the failure of the system to provide successful reentry has numerous consequences, and these recommendations will spur broader actions and investments to tackle this important issue.”

Jeremy Barclay, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Corrections, acknowledged the authenticity of the video and said the department was “surprised and concerned." He said the standard operating procedure should involve releasing people into the safety of a state or county facility where resources are available.

When asked for comment about the video, the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office deferred to the Yakima DOC, which has jurisdiction over the transport of inmates. 

Yakima County Department of Corrections Director Ed W Campbell sent KING 5 the following statement Friday:

“Yakima County currently has over 20 Westside contracts with jurisdictions for bed rentals for incarcerated individuals. As part of those contracts we request pickup and drop off locations from our contracts.

Many jurisdictions have us pickup or drop off at city, county or state buildings. We only release individuals to the street who have completed their sentences and at the direction of the Westside jurisdiction we contract with. We have had difficulty with one of our contracts drop off points in Seattle getting individuals to the bus station due to complaints causing us to move drop off locations.

Based on a complaint our contract received last week from the Seattle city council’s office as part of the video taken we were asked to change the drop off location to a State Office in King County and we have done so.

It is our desire to be good partners with our contract agencies and all communities across the State of Washington. The concern is understandable, and an alternative drop off location was provided and is being used. The individuals transported were out of custody and being returned to the Westside where they reside.”

The City of Seattle is struggling to answer the needs of a homeless population that has grown in the past decade, spurred in part by escalating housing costs and an epidemic of opioid and methamphetamine abuse. In February, Durkan rebuked Federal Way officials for busing some homeless people to Seattle to seek shelter during one of the winter storms that struck the region.