King County leaders demand answers over teens held in solitary confinement in jail

King County leaders are demanding answers about why teenagers in jail were held in solitary confinement more than a dozen times in the last few months, despite a 2017 ban on the practice except in limited circumstances.

A new report from an independent monitor stated that eight teenagers were held in solitary confinement, which they call “the hole,” 15 times between July 2018 and November of 2018.

“What was your reaction?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski.

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“Disappointment,” he said. “Frustration…. Because I think it’s fairly straightforward. Don’t use solitary confinement for punishment of young people in our jails.”

The county banned its use except for last resort cases, like preventing significant physical harm to the juvenile or others after less restrictive alternatives were unsuccessful.

“Why is solitary confinement for young people for extended periods so problematic?” Sheldon asked.

“Well, young folks’ brains are still developing,” Dembowski said, “and when you’re young and involved in the juvenile justice system, you’re going to come out. And so when you come out, we want you to be headed on a better track than when you went in.”

Dembowski pointed out that the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and a United Nations expert on torture have both come out against the practice.

The report also includes quotes from juveniles being held in solitary confinement.

One said, "I was sent to the 'hole' for one week for a fight with another inmate. I got one hour out of my cell every other day.'"

Another said, "Being in the hole makes you depressed and angry. A lot of emotions come to you. The hole makes people go crazy."

“A lot of these are pretrial,” Dembowski said. “We have young folks in there who have not been convicted of anything.”

And if the law passed by the council weren't enough, the county also settled a lawsuit by four juveniles who had been held in solitary confinement.

“We investigated that,” Columbia Legal Services policy analyst Travis Andrews said. “We found they were being held for days, weeks, months at a time.”

In the lawsuit, the county also agreed to stop using the practice except in limited circumstances. So for this to happen again, Andrews said, is surprising.

“Well, it's very concerning,” he said. “You know, we have been working with both the monitor and the county hoping that things would change for the juveniles.”

Dembowski said the youth detention officers support the reform but tell council they need support from management. He said ultimately, this goes to the top, King County Executive Dow Constantine.

“We gave a timeline to implement it, right,” he said. “That timeline, we were assured by the executive staff who passed it, would be adequate. If they were having trouble meeting it, if they couldn't get it done, they should have come back to us and said, we need more time or we need more resources. But they didn’t.”

KIRO 7 reached out to Constantine. His office pointed out that solitary confinement can be used in those last resort, safety and security cases. But in the monitor's report, it's unclear if these 15 cases fell under that.

Constantine's staff said they are working to get more information for Tuesday afternoon’s council hearing on the matter.