ACLU Warns Thurston County about Overcrowded Conditions at Jail

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

Undersheriff Neil McClanahan
Thurston County Sheriff's Office
2000 Lakeridge Drive SW
Olympia, WA 98502-6045

Re: Thurston County Jail

Dear Undersheriff McClanahan:

Thank you for arranging a tour of the jail last week for ACLU staff. The visit unquestionably confirmed the many complaints we receive every month from inmates who report severe overcrowding and the numerous problems that inevitably follow from it. It is imperative for Thurston County and its cities to establish constitutionally adequate jail facilities.

The ACLU is disappointed at the slow rate of progress towards ameliorating the problem, given that it has been a topic of discussion between your office and ours for several years. Jail overcrowding in Thurston County has been studied and re-studied. From our conversations during the year 2000, I was under the impression that things were moving past study to action—long overdue action. Unfortunately, some recent developments you explained to me last week are discouraging. If these problems are not resolved by the political and administrative leadership in Thurston County, it may become necessary for judicial leadership to take over.

As long ago as 1996, we reported to you some of the complaints that inmates relayed to us. These included:

  • severe overcrowding, with many inmates forced to sleep so close to toilets that they were stepped on or urinated on by other inmates
  • poor sanitation and lack of access to hygiene supplies
  • infrequent changes of clothing and linen
  • denial of prescribed medications and lack of treatment for health care
  • limited indoor or outdoor exercise areas
  • lack of access to a law library
  • inmate kites or grievances not answered
  • broken plumbing and poor ventilation

Most of these problems were directly attributable to overcrowding. We received complaints from corrections officers as well as inmates, who also expressed their concerns that the dangerously overcrowded situation made their jobs unreasonably dangerous due to the enhanced risk of injury from assault, fire, and communicable disease. While the jail has taken some valuable steps to add capacity in the limited area available to it on the current location (such as the construction of the annex and the recent conversion of the CAPCOM unit), these steps are "band-aids." The jail population is simply way too large for the facility.

The population cap imposed in early 2000 did help reduce the number of complaints we received, no doubt because it reduced the number of inmates sleeping on the floor from a daily average of around 90 or more to less than 20. Unfortunately, you informed me that this cap was recently lifted, and in less than a week the head counts are already at 45 on the floor or more. The jail simply cannot allow the conditions to return to the 1999 levels. The number of complaints the ACLU receives correlates directly to the number of inmates forced to sleep on the floor. As a short-term measure, the booking restrictions should be reimposed at once.

The plan to convert the Tyson Building to create 400 or more beds strikes us as a necessary step given the population growth in the county and criminal laws requiring more arrests and prosecutions. Because the County already has a project manager, an architect, and a conditional use permit for this building, pursuing any other plan would add years to the process, and the inmates do not have years in which to suffer unconstitutional conditions. It was alarming to learn that the plan was once again put on hold due to political disagreements after your assurances that the project had the green light.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the ACLU filed lawsuits against King County and Pierce County over their dangerously overcrowded jail conditions. The litigation and the resulting consent decrees made a real difference for the inmates, corrections staff, law enforcement, and the county at large. In all likelihood, Thurston County would have made faster progress in alleviating its jail overcrowding if the ACLU had commenced suit several years ago when the complaints began to accelerate. However, we held back, on the theory that allowing the County to devote its energies to new jail construction as promised would be a faster remedy. However, if Thurston County does not expeditiously embark on the necessary changes, we will likely conclude that a court order will be a faster and more reliable method.

I applaud your recent steps to bring all of the county's political decisionmakers together to discuss interjurisdictional jail issues. I am sending a copy of this letter to them to help them better understand the history of our involvement and the dire conditions that exist in the Thurston County jail. The serious overcrowding results both from population growth and from laws that incarcerate more and more people, frequently on nonviolent offenses. I invite the cities to contact the ACLU if they have further questions about the jail and the need to reform sentencing practices generally, from the municipal court level upwards.


Staff Attorney

cc: Chief Karen Daniels
Mayor Stan Biles (Olympia)
Mayor Graeme Sackrison (Lacey)
Mayor Ralph Osgood (Tumwater)
Mayor Kathryn Wolf (Yelm)
Mayor Steve Lycan (Tenino)
Mayor Dennis McWhinney (Bucoda)
Mayor Mike Elliott (Rainier)