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Audit demands changes to curb violence, racial disparities at King County jails

Against the backdrop of a recent coronavirus outbreak that sickened dozens of inmates,a new report calls for King County jails to avoid holding people in two-person cellsbecause the practice could lead to a continued decrease in violence. 

On average, there’s more than one fight or assault that occurs every day at King County’s two jails – one in downtown Seattle and the other at Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. Between 2017 and 2019, officials documented 1,052 fights, the King County Auditor’s Office said in a report published Tuesday. 

Until the pandemic, King County booked more than 30,000 people every year into jail and housed about 2,000 on average per day, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Indigenous. With the pandemic, however, the jail population decreased significantly, as did violent incidents. 

Due to an effort to try to stop the spread of COVID-19, the jail population dropped to a total daily population of approximately 1,300. With more individuals living alone in cells, fights and assaults dropped by a whopping 63% at the King County Correctional Facility, the audit found.

The downtown jail is the more violent of the two facilities, with an average of 528 incidents per year compared with 183 per year at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.

In addition to the once-high number of violent incidents, the mortality rate in King County jails is higher than the national average. Every year since 2009, at least one person has died in custody, according to the King County Auditor’s Office report.

Approximately 85% of those incarcerated in the two jails are awaiting trial and haven’t been convicted of a crime. Many suffer from mental health issues, and between 2017 and 2020, four people died by suicide. 

King County officials are calling for an increase in mental health resources and additional suicide-resistant cells. 

Overall, officials also found Black and Indigenous people were more likely to face discipline. The racial disparities found with regard to discipline were especially acute for Black women.

“We found clear racial disparities in housing and discipline, meaning Black people who are incarcerated in King County are more likely to face negative consequences in jail such as higher security housing, more rule infractions, and more severe punishment,” read the auditor’s report. 

“This, in turn, could lead them to be involved in more violent incidents and could result in negative health outcomes.”


Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to