As the King County, Wa., jail population and lengths of jail stays shoot past pre-pandemic levels, the downtown Seattle jail has lost five incarcerated people to suicide in the past year, at a rate eight times higher than national averages, the Seattle Times reports. “It’s astronomical,” said Frances Abderhalden, an expert on jail suicides and an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles. “It begs the question to me: Why this facility? That’s a lot of death in general in one facility per year.”
As of last month, the average daily population in the downtown jail increased to more than 1,200 people — larger than the highest pre-pandemic counts in 2019. Public concern about crime is high and King County mayors are pushing for the jail to accept more bookings. At the same time, elected officials have made few changes to support inmates’ mental health, announcing no specific plans to restore visitation and programming, and moving slowly on facilities fixes that could prevent deaths. Family members say jailing their mentally ill loved ones only makes them sicker. The King County Jail started housing people primarily in single cells at the outset of the pandemic as a way to reduce COVID transmission rates. King County auditors last year also recommended avoiding double bunking to prevent violence among people sharing housing units. Isolation is a key factor in suicidal behavior, experts say. Connectedness, or face-to-face interaction with a support system, keeps people alive. “Loneliness, boredom and hopelessness are all tied into those two policies of visitation and programming,” Abderhalden said. By removing opportunities for connectedness, she added, the jail is “amplifying” factors that contribute to suicidal behavior.