King County Council acts to prevent county use of private prisons

The following is a press release from the King County Council.

The Metropolitan King County Council approved legislation introduced by Councilmember Dave Upthegrove that prohibits the county from entering in any contracts with private prison companies to house adult or juvenile detainees.

Private facilities have uncertain records when it comes to safety. A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that contract prisons have a higher rate of safety and security incidents, including a higher rate of assaults on both staff and inmates.

“With the uncertainty at the national level, this is an opportunity to ensure that private prisons are never used by King County,” Upthegrove said. “Private facilities have consistently demonstrated that the push for profit creates unsafe conditions that put both staff and inmates at risk.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice committed to limit the practice of contracting with non-governmental organizations, though it is unclear whether President Trump will honor that commitment, since he has expressed support for the use of private detention centers.

Over a decade ago, the County Council recognized that increases in criminal justice expenditures were outpacing the County’s ability to pay for these increases. Since then, the Council, working with leaders in the County’s criminal justice system have, engaged in an intensive effort to reduce the use of secure detention. That effort involved alternatives to incarceration where appropriate and programs that lower the likelihood an inmate will re-offend. As a result of these actions, King County is able to meet the current and projected detention needs.

King County does not currently contract with non-governmental detention facilities, but there is nothing in existing policy that would prevent it in the future. The adopted ordinance ensures that the current practice of incarcerating inmates at county facilities continues. Other jurisdictions, including the State of Washington and the federal government, contract with private prison companies as a way to alleviate overcrowding.

“Private prison companies are profit-driven and their primary responsibility is to their shareholders. These companies have a history of operating prisons that violate the rights of incarcerated persons and have inadequate and inhumane conditions,” said Elizabeth Smith, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Washington. “The ACLU is pleased that this ordinance will codify current King County practice and prohibit the County from contracting with any private entity for secure detention services.”