At a public hearing on Tuesday, criminal justice advocates urged the King County Council to vote ‘no’ on a measure to send county inmates to a regional jail in Des Moines, WA. 

The council postponed consideration of the bill until its next meeting. If approved, the County could send at least 50 people to the regional South Correctional Entity, also known as SCORE. However, the council mentioned that King County Executive Dow Constantine said he may want to send as many as 150 people to the Des Moines jail. 

Under a two-year contract, the county would pay $3.5 million for the 50 spots. That number would increase if the county sent more people, said Leah Krekel-Zoppi, a legislative analyst who explained the bill to the council Tuesday. 

Constantine proposed the bill as staffing shortages and a rising daily population in King County jails coincide with a sharp increase in people dying in custody. On the day of the council meeting, downtown jail staff found a 58-year-old woman dead in her cell, though the cause of death was still not known Wednesday afternoon. In February, the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit alleging the county was not providing people incarcerated at the jail adequate access to court and medical care.

However, advocates at Tuesday's meeting pointed to several lawsuits filed by the families of people who died at SCORE. Those suits alleged that the facility’s failure to provide adequate medical care resulted in the death of their loved ones. 

On March 13, SCORE settled a lawsuit with the family of Nicole Burghart, who died in 2019 at SCORE. She went into alcohol withdrawal while at the jail and had a seizure, according to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Seattle. The lawsuit alleged that nurses noted significant symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and should have known she was at risk for potentially fatal complications. The undisclosed settlement amount was in part turned into a trust for her underage son.

In August 2022, SCORE settled a lawsuit with Dustin Michelle, who was booked into SCORE in October 2018 and reported neck pain. No doctor saw him while he was at the jail, despite him filing a medical grievance and reporting worsening symptoms, according to a lawsuit filed in district court. The settlement amount was not disclosed.

When Michelle was transferred to King County Jail on Oct 25, 2018, medical personnel again ignored his requests for medical care. When the jail released him from custody, doctors found he was in multiorgan failure due to septic shock from a neck wound, according to the lawsuit. King County also settled a lawsuit with Michelle in November 2022.

Activists mentioned by name Damaris Rodriguez, who in 2018 was in a mental health crisis when she was jailed at SCORE. A 2019 Seattle Times article said Rodriquez’s family filed a lawsuit on her behalf alleging she spent four “torturous” days naked in a holding cell, hallucinating, and drinking large amounts of water and vomiting. SCORE settled that case for an undisclosed amount in 2022.

King County operates two jails; one in Seattle, and one in Kent. About a fifth of the correctional officer positions were vacant as of March 16, according to the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. This leaves about 400 people to manage a population of just under 1,500 people, according to a jail population report from March 18.

Since August 2021, the suicide rate at the downtown jail exceeded national averages, according to a Seattle Times article from September. Five people died by suicide in 12 months.

Advocates at the hearing Tuesday asked the council not to invest the $3.5 million in the contract with SCORE but to instead use it to fund community services to help the people jailed in King County.

The council said it would postpone a vote on the bill so members could get more information about medical care at the regional facility, the procedures around in-custody deaths, and whether the regional facilities overall values matched those of King County’s jails.