Staff, ex-inmate disagree about city of Kent jail conditions
By STEVE HUNTER
Kent Reporter Courts, government reporter
October 5, 2012 · 1:13 PM
Donald Shuffelen recently spent 38 days as an inmate in the Kent city jail and called conditions inside "horrific."
He didn't like the overcrowding, toilets that wouldn't flush, water too hot to take a shower and drinking water too warm to drink.
"I think the city of Kent should know how people are being treated," said Shuffelen, of Kent, about his reason for going public with his complaints. "My thing is not revenge. But if your (cell) partner takes a dump at 3 in the morning you shouldn't have to smell it until 7."
City jail administrators said during an interview at the facility that inmates do sleep on mattresses on the floor in a common area because cells are full. They also agreed with Shuffelen that toilets sometimes don't work and drinking water was too warm until recently fixed.
But Kent Police Assistant Chief Jon Straus, who oversees the jail along South Central Avenue on the south end of the city, described overall conditions as "good." The jail is also known as the City of Kent Corrections Facility.
"It's a 25-year-old facility with inmates who couldn't care less about it so there's more wear and tear," Straus said. "We're keeping on top of it fairly well. We have a good facilities unit with the city."
Plumbing and other repairs to the jail are handled by the facilities division of the city's Park, Recreation and Community Service Department unless there is an emergency and an outside contractor needs to be called in.
"If there is running water spilling out or a backed up toilet, they try to get someone out within the day," Straus said. "We had a complaint a week ago about sewer water leaking into a unit. Facilities looked at it within two hours and determined there was not any sewer water leaking.
"We look into those things. We don't blow it off."
Shuffelen said he filled out numerous inmate request forms to complain about the sleeping conditions, toilets and water.
"I'm frustrated because they seem to pass the buck and say talk to the other guy," Shuffelen said. "I couldn't shower because the water was super hot. And the toilet wouldn't flush."
Cells are shared by two inmates and are equipped with a toilet. There also is a toilet in the common area of the day room.
Jail commander Diane McCuistion said inmates sometimes intentionally try to plug up toilets.
"They'll stick blankets in them to make them inoperable so they can get out more and get out to the day room," McCuistion said. "The inmates who have been in prison before are more savvy to manipulate things."
The city jail opened in 1986 and houses misdemeanor offenders sentenced to less than one year. That includes offenses such as drunk driving, domestic violence, minor assaults and petty theft.
The average length of stay for an inmate in the city jail is 14 days, McCuistion said.
Jail officials use electronic home detention, work release programs and work crews in the community for those with lesser offenses to lower the number of inmates. The jail remains overcrowded despite those programs designed to reduce the length of sentences and open more beds.
"The first 10 days I was in there I slept on the floor on a thin mattress," said Shuffelen, who added his requests for an extra or thicker mattress were turned down. "I couldn't get to sleep. There were at least 10 to 12 of us on the floor."
Kent built its jail to house about 46 inmates, one to a cell. Jail officials then doubled the number by placing two inmates in each cell. They also place low cots on the floor in the day room to handle more inmates.
The jail population averages about 105 inmates per day and has reached as high as 125, Straus said.
"There is no state or federal law that you can only house so many people," Straus said. "We do what's safe for the inmates and the staff."
The Kent City Council last month extended for another three years a two-year agreement between the city and Chelan County to house inmates from Kent at the Chelan County Regional Justice Center in Wenatchee when the city jail becomes overcrowded. Kent pays Chelan County $70 per day for each inmate sent to Wenatchee.
Shuffelen, who was in jail after getting arrested for investigation of fourth-degree assault domestic violence (he later plead guilty to disorderly conduct), said jail staff tries to avoid sending extra inmates to Chelan County.
"They'd rather have them on the floor then send them over," Shuffelen said. "I saw four people sent to Chelan. They try not to send them away so they don't go over budget."
Straus said no hard number of inmates exists to determine when to send inmates to Chelan County.
"It comes down to a bunch of variables," Straus said. "When it's right about 105 the commander monitors the tenor of the jail. The number can get up to 120 to 125 with inmates on the floor and if they behave and all is OK, the staff and inmates are safe and it's not necessary to send them to Chelan County which is costly. But you can have 114 inmates and it might not be safe."
Jail officials have sent 54 inmates so far this year to Chelan County because of overcrowding, including 16 in June, the highest number of any month.
While Shuffelen hated the beds on the floor in the day room, McCuistion said other inmates prefer the common area to a cell.
"A lot like the floor because it's not locked down," she said. "In the units they are locked down for four hours. On the floor, they are out all of the time."
Inmates can earn community service by working jobs within the jail, including the kitchen and laundry facilities.
The jail also has a medical office staffed with two register nurses, one licensed practical nurse and a physician's assistant. The city contracts with Valley Medical Center of Renton to provide the staff. The office is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.
"If they have a medical need when they come in we do a medical intake to address it," McCuistion said. "Then it goes to the medical unit. We give special meals all of the time to those with allergies."
Shuffelen claimed the system didn't work that smoothly for him as he struggled to get meals for a no-salt diet. He admitted he's done stupid things and served time previously in other jails.
"But this (Kent) is the worst when you can't take a shower, can't drink the water and sit in your cell for three hours and can't flush the toilet," he said.
Straus said conditions are not that bad.
"We'll get complaints about things to fix and some are legitimate and some are not," Straus said. "But if there's running water, we act on it. And if the toilet's not working in the unit, they can use other facilities (in the day room)."
Contact Kent Reporter Courts, government reporter Steve Hunter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-872-6600, ext. 5052.