Every week, the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Jail Project visits the King County Correctional Facility (KCCF) in downtown Seattle and the SCORE Jail in Des Moines, Washington, to monitor jail conditions and speak to inmates with mental illness about their experiences. Often, we see the same inmates cycle in and out of both jails. One month an inmate is at KCCF, and the next back at SCORE. In between those periods, they are often homeless or hospitalized. Much more rarely, they are stabilized, housed and able to access outpatient services.
This churning effect—moving back and forth between jails, the streets, and hospitals without meaningful intervention—is an obvious problem. It wears on inmates the same way it wears on the system. It grinds them down and, as you will hear from Siyad Shamo in our latest jail video, it breeds hopelessness. Siyad’s experience speaks to the lost opportunity that incarceration often presents—an opportunity to intervene in an individual’s life and try to provide stability and treatment to avoid re-arrest. Jails are simply not adequately funded to do this. They often cannot get to all the inmates who need help in the short time that inmates are usually in jail.
Siyad’s story also highlights an important inconsistency between jails. Each jail has its own classification system that determines how an inmate will be housed. Factors like criminal history, gang affiliation and mental illness are used to decide whether an inmate will be placed in solitary confinement or have privileges. But because there is no centralized system or consistent standards, the same inmate might end up in very different conditions depending on the jail. For Siyad, being at KCCF meant living in group population in a dormitory setting where he had freedom of movement and social interaction. This can be especially important to the well-being of people with mental illness. Being transferred to SCORE a week later meant being placed alone in a small cell, locked down for 23 hours per day, provided almost no human contact, accompanied by at least two guards and made to wear shackles whenever he was removed from his cell. This is even more troubling because research shows the serious negative effects that solitary confinement can have on inmates with mental illness.
Without oversight and more consistent standards, this is what we get with our jails. The same person. The same life circumstances. But radically different jail experiences, neither involving timely access to treatment or meaningful release planning.
Disability Rights Washington is the protection and advocacy agency for Washington, and is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.