Proposal for new jail oversight agency headed to WA lawmakers

Thurston County’s jail is one of 50 local jails in Washington that could be subject to the oversight of a new state agency under a proposal that a statewide task force is sending to lawmakers. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Washington should establish an independent agency to craft and enforce standards for the operation of local jails under a proposal a statewide task force is sending to lawmakers.

This new entity would set minimum staffing levels and maximum capacity for each city, county and regional jail, and write guidelines for intake, visitation, discipline, and medical care services.

And its staff could conduct unannounced inspections and seek the closure of facilities where conditions jeopardize the safety of workers or incarcerated individuals.

The Joint Legislative Task Force on Jail Standards approved the idea for the agency and other recommendations on Wednesday.

In all, the panel adopted nearly three dozen suggestions that will be part of a report due to the Legislature on Dec. 1.

“This is just the beginning of what we know will be a lot of work to make these recommendations be realized,” said Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle, one of four legislators on the 18-person task force.

Washington currently has 50 city, county and regional jails for adults ranging in size from 14 beds in Wahkiakum County to a total of 2,906 in King County. They vary in age, with several constructed nearly 40 years ago.

Task force members visited different sites in the past year and used a survey to gather data on the number of people incarcerated, staffing levels, visitor access and availability of health care services to those behind bars.

What emerged in the recommendations is recognition of a need to do more to improve conditions in most local jails.

Establishing and adequately funding a new oversight agency is the top idea. It would be guided by a commission which would appoint a director. The state has had agencies with similar missions before, such as the Washington Corrections Standards Board that was eliminated in 1987.

As now recommended, the new entity would develop mandatory minimum standards within five years, with a timeline for compliance hammered out through rule-making. The envisioned agency’s oversight powers would not extend to state-run correctional facilities.

Beyond launching the new agency, the task force wants to see standards penned for every aspect of day-to-day life in jails. One recommendation, which drew opposition from some members, would require jails provide those in custody with up to 90 minutes of free time each day for telephone or video calls.

There was unanimous support to mandate access to a free and confidential suicide prevention hotline. Between 2018 and 2022, about 124 people died in a Washington jail and suicide was the cause of about a third, according to the task force’s survey results. The suicide rate in Washington jails is one of the highest in the nation, task force members noted.

Only one of 34 proposed recommendations failed.

It sought to reduce the number of people in jail by limiting pretrial detention of those eligible for release who are in jail because they cannot afford bail. That would require legislative action.

Meanwhile, the task force did call on the Legislature to invest more resources into mental health services and other programs to help people to avoid incarceration.

The task force included Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate, plus 14 others representing local government, law enforcement, jail administration, courts, organizations working with incarcerated people  and a formerly incarcerated individual.

Members reflected this week on what they took away from the panel’s work.

“I really do appreciate how much I learned about what jails are facing and what people incarcerated in jails face,” said Lisa Janicki, a Skagit County commissioner.

Jordan Landry said his time in jail included a 20-month stint in isolation that left him feeling he “wasn’t good enough” when he got out. The past year working with “the most awesome people” on the task force changed him.

“I went from thinking I’m not good enough to thinking I’m pretty awesome,” he said with a smile.

by Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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