Editor’s note: This story focuses on suicide, self-harm, and other topics related to psychiatric distress. If you or a loved one are in crisis, resources are available here.
King County jail conditions that exacerbate isolation and increase suicide risk could see potential fixes, but those could take up to two years, according to announcements made Monday by the county executive. King Dow Constantine and the county jail warden.
Constantine said he was ‘especially heartened to hear about the possibility of restoring services to individuals and families in detention’ at a press conference, which highlighted the executive’s security proposals public ahead of the release of its two-year budget plan next week. The two-year proposal also includes the prison’s ongoing work to repair bunk beds with known suicide risks.
Seattle’s downtown jail — one of two adult prisons run by the county — has seen an alarming increase in suicides over the past year. Between August 2021 and July 2022, four people died by suicide in the city center prison or in hospital following a stay in prison, a rate more than four times higher than the national average of prisons before the pandemic, according to the Seattle Times report.
Jeremiah Bainbridge of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said the two-year delay in fixing prison conditions indicated a lack of mental health urgency, although he noted the prison is not not a suitable place for people with mental health issues.
“The programs and the beds…I just can’t think of another health hazard they would allow to linger in their equipment,” Bainbridge said.
Families of those in custody cited the prison’s closure of in-person visits and programs like Narcotics Anonymous and group religious services as contributors to the deteriorating mental health of their loved ones.
The prison halted group activities, classes and in-person family visits early in the pandemic to reduce transmission of COVID-19, but these policies have continued as the prison grapples with a crisis of under -effective.
The prison currently has around 100 prison officers, almost a fifth of its prison workforce, as of 2020.
“Our current staffing situation has also been a challenge,” prison warden Allen Nance said at Monday morning’s press conference. “However, we are currently working on a plan to restore visitation for community agencies to work with those in our care, as well as family members who wish to visit loved ones.”
The proposal to restore tours and programming would take place “barring further COVID surge,” Nance said.
Experts say policies preventing in-person contact for those incarcerated in the prison exacerbate isolation, a common risk factor for suicide.
Three of the people who died by suicide at the prison in the past year also used bunks with a design flaw known for suicide risk to kill themselves, a finding reported by the Seattle Times in June. The prison has been retrofitting bunks to eliminate the risk of suicide since 2021, but is not expected to complete the work until 2023.
Monday’s outline of Constantine’s proposed public safety plan highlighted bunk repair work as another feature of the executive’s proposed two-year budget.
Nance, the prison warden, said some mental health supports, such as counseling on substance use disorders, could be made available to those incarcerated before 2023.
“I’m very optimistic that we’ll have them in place before the end of this year,” Nance said.
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