Aaron Park

Inmate Alexander Hooks turned the tables on the City of Seattle. In May 2006, Hooks was arrested on assault charges, but wound up suing the city when it shipped him three hours east to await trial in the Yakima County Jail—a transfer he says not only limited access to his lawyer, but made him fear for his life. "Was there ever cause for concern for your personal safety [in the Yakima County Jail]?" Hooks's lawyer asked at a hearing last June. "Yes... The people that were there, I couldn't identify with them. They were mostly Hispanic," said Hooks, who is black. "They were very territorial and thought it was their jail. I was from Seattle. I didn't belong." Later in his testimony about his time at the jail, Hooks, a large man with broad shoulders and thick arms, broke into tears. There's a lot of debate over whether Hooks—or any Seattle residents—actually belong in the Yakima County Jail. "I think concern for safety alone is a sufficient reason to stop sending people to Yakima," says public defender Lisa Daugaard, who helped win Hooks's transfer back to King County. The reason Seattle inmates are housed all the way out in dangerous Yakima, of course, is money.

Short on cell space, the City of Seattle is in a bind; it either has to build expensive new jails or export its jail population somewhere else. In 2002, Seattle and 34 other cities in King County chose the second option, paying Yakima County around $8 million a year to house 440 inmates. During the last four years, though, the Yakima County Jail has been plagued with problems; it is chronically understaffed and overcrowded, with high rates of violence (in 2005, the jail averaged one assault a day) and limited medical care for inmates.

"Our lawyers have consistently reported clients expressing fear for their personal safety [in the Yakima County Jail]," says Daugaard.

When Yakima County signed the contract with the King County cities, it was supposed to build and open a new jail (to replace the current dreary, badly designed, and overcrowded cement box on Yakima's Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue) to house the cities' inmates. That new jail is still not open. Instead of directing the money from the King County contract to maintaining a new jail, Yakima County sent the millions to its general fund.

Concerned about conditions at the Yakima County Jail, in late 2005 the 35 King County cities hired a consultant to study its safety. The consultant's conclusions were damning: Racial tension runs high among inmates and, at the time, access to medical care was so limited it was borderline unconstitutional. Overcrowding leads to frequent gang fights between Hispanic inmates from the 509 area code and black inmates from the 206. The jail was built to house around 400 and is now stuffed with 800–1,000 inmates, according to Wayne Johnson of the Teamsters Local 760 that represents the jail's correctional officers. "The more crowded they are, the more assaults they have," says Johnson, who adds that the jail is also understaffed.

The only real solution, say several experts, is to open the new jail. Yakima County did open the new jail on a trial basis earlier this year, but ran short on money and shut it again, leaving the facility built but unoccupied.

Fearful for inmate safety, Renton pulled its prisoners out of the Yakima County Jail at the end of August. Seattle has not pulled out, and instead joined 13 King County cities on September 25 in signing a damage complaint against Yakima County for not opening the new jail, the first step in filing a formal lawsuit.

Finally, on Friday, November 3, Yakima County Jail Director Steve Robertson announced that the new jail was opening this spring after four years of delay. While the new jail remains locked, Yakima County administrators have tried to patch up the old one. They have made some improvement; while the jail averaged one assault a day in 2005, Robertson told the Yakima Herald Republic that there were only eight assaults in October. Robertson did not respond to a request for comment.

Ironically, Seattle has not even been using all the beds it pays for at the Yakima County Jail. While King County jails are filled to the brim, the jail population didn't increase as much as consultants estimated it would after 2002, so Seattle is locked into a contract paying for more jail space than it actually needs.

The various failings of the Yakima County Jail contract reveal the difficulty of dealing with Seattle's rising incarcerated population. As Seattle continues to grow, the road to justice in the city might not be I-90 to Yakima, but out of jails altogether. For the last three years, Seattle has run a test program of alternatives to incarceration, with nearly 4,000 convicts sentenced to work release or home detention rather than full jail time.