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King County public defenders & corrections officers see eye-to-eye on Covid crisis in jails

caption: The King County Jail is shown on Thursday, September 17, 2020, on 5th Avenue in Seattle.
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The King County Jail is shown on Thursday, September 17, 2020, on 5th Avenue in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

There are currently 170 incarcerated people in King County jails sick with Covid-19. Hundreds more are in quarantine, and 70 corrections officers are out sick. That has created a dangerous situation, according to public defenders and corrections officers.

Their respective unions are calling for county and city leaders to stop booking non-violent offenders into jail, and to release non-violent offenders who are already there. Their joint letter says, "fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as Covid."

To find out more about this call for action, KUOW’s Kim Malcolm interviewed Elbert Aull, a public defender in King County, and the Political Action Chair with SEIU 925.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Elbert Aull: The situation we have at the jails right now is kind of a perfect storm. You had chronic understaffing at the jail, which ran headfirst into this new Covid variant. That created critical levels of understaffing at the jail that has put the safety of both our clients, but also corrections officers, at risk.

We're talking about people not having clean spaces to shower and live. We're talking about medication not being delivered on time, or just not being delivered at all. We're talking about meals not being prepared on schedule, and people eating cold food. We're talking about access to family, friends, and the outside world being severely restricted.

I had a client who told me they are only being let out of their cells for 15 to 30 minutes a day. I saw that guy late on a Friday afternoon. On Monday afternoon when I got a chance to speak to him over the phone, he said over the weekend he was only let out of his cell once for 30 minutes. That's the situation at the jails right now.

Is that because so many officers are out sick with Covid right now?

Yes. They would not be doing that if they were fully staffed.

Your union and the corrections guild sent a letter to King County asking for the jails to stop booking people unless the offense is violent. Why did you ask that?

I think we need to stem the tide of people coming into the jails before we start making decisions about who's going to be released. Every day, we've got somewhere between 30 and 45 new people coming into the jails. We've got to reduce that number in order to address this crisis.

Critics of that idea might say, if people aren't being booked into the jails, they might not show up for court at all. What would you say to that?

Whenever a judge in Washington considers an argument from a defense attorney like me for release, the court rule mandates that they consider two things: whether the person is a danger to the community, or whether they're unlikely to appear at a subsequent court date. That rule applies whether there's a crisis at the jail or not. So, when I hear opponents ask why we should release anyone who might not reappear I hear, let's maintain the status quo in the face of a looming humanitarian crisis. That, to me, is unacceptable.

What kind of response have you had to the letter?

Members of the city council and county council have reached out. We have not yet seen a concrete plan from the prosecutor's office to help us lower the population at King County's jails.

A spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell says the City Attorney's office is reviewing motions for release on a case-by-case basis. The King County Prosecutor's office says it's working with jail staff to look at cases individually, and that it's not asking for bail for most non-violent, first-time offenses. Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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