EXCLUSIVE: Inmate overdose rates in Washington prisons spike

Overdose deaths in Washington have spiked by 24 percent, the highest increase in the country.

Eight inmates have overdosed on fentanyl inside Seattle's King County Jail since the end of May, including the latest of which that occurred on Tuesday. Officials say inmates are sneaking in opioids and putting others inside the facility at risk. The jail is already understaffed and there is now a major concern that the issue could get worse.

According to the corrections officer union, King County Executive Dow Constantine is ignoring the problem and needs to do more. Dennis Folk, president of the King County Corrections Guild said, “I've seen both pills and powder coming through…it was heroin years ago, now it's fentanyl.” 

He added that inmates leave the facility to go to medical appointments and then sneak the deadly drug back in even though all inmates are scanned by security.

“Somebody got arrested, maybe their charge didn't require a strip search,” Folk explained. “Or there have been cases where they swallowed it or maybe put it somewhere else… so I just don't know what the easy stop is to stop it.”

Folk said that the King County Jail is now facing a similar problem that led to a jail in Nashville, Tennessee banning all paper products coming into the facility. He described how someone can write a letter to their incarcerated friend or relative and “…can soak liquid fentanyl into the paper and then once it dries, mail that letter to them. And then now they have that letter, that paper that's been soaked in fentanyl and they can just eat the paper.”

He also described that they get Suboxone and other drugs during medical visits and that “…these guys have figured out a way to get the Suboxone in the back of their throat, pass the mouth check, and then once they're away from the nurse back in their unit, they're able to cough this stuff back up in the saliva and then let it dry in the paper and then take the Suboxone later, or give it away or sell it.” 

Due to the overdoses, the lifesaving drug Narcan had to be administered. Additionally, medics had to respond to the facility. 

According to Folk, staffing shortages are contributing to the problem and the department is down over 100 officers and at minimum staffing levels despite offering up to $25,000 in hiring incentives. “Most of our officers are doing two to three times their normal workload…being short-handed, there's always a chance something could be missed,” especially during cell searches. 

He continued that several corrections officers have been exposed to fentanyl smoke, similar to the problems Metro bus drivers are having, “…and then maybe getting something on your clothes and take that home to your family, that's something where I wouldn't want to bear that responsibility.” 

Folk said regarding drug treatment for inmates that the county needs “…to get the ball rolling on this and make sure that when people go through these programs that there's accountability within the program.”

“We all support people getting sober and getting the help they need, but if they're just going to go to the class just to graduate because the court told them to, they go back to the street to start using again.”

Folk noted that the county had previously shut down treatment services at the North End Rehabilitation Facility in Shoreline due to high operational costs and that very few inmates availed themselves of the services.

Folk also criticized King County Executive Dow Constantine’s decision to close the downtown jail without a plan to replace it with a more modern facility.

Constantine’s office oversees the jail and refused to comment.  

King County isn’t the only correctional facility dealing with fentanyl. A few months ago, four inmates overdosed in the Snohomish County Jail and earlier this year, 6 inmates OD’d on fentanyl in the Thurston County Jail.

Data from Seattle-King County Public Health revealed how badly fentanyl overdoses have ravaged the area. King County passed the 2020 annual total of drug overdoses by April, only a quarter of the way through 2023.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington had the largest increase in overdose deaths in the US in the latest 12-month reporting period, ending Jan. 31.

Overdose deaths spiked 24 percent, the highest increase in the country. Just this week alone, two high school students in Bellevue accidentally overdosed on fentanyl using “vape pens which either contained or were laced with fentanyl.”

According to an analysis by The Seattle Times showing how Washington was an outlier from the rest of the US, 25 states saw reductions in overdose deaths in this same 12-month period and for the entire country, drug deaths were relatively flat year-over-year, up only 0.7 percent.

The Evergreen State saw 2,850 people die from drug overdoses during this period according to CDC projections, which the outlet noted is “equivalent to the number of people who died of COVID-19 here in the first nine months of the coronavirus pandemic — an outbreak that caused rolling statewide shutdowns and an all-hands-on-deck government response.”

It was reported in January that the King County Medical Examiner was running out of places to keep the dead bodies due to the number of fentanyl overdoses.

In Seattle, the largest city in the county, the Seattle Fire Department responded to 671 suspected overdose-related calls in May alone, an increase from 599 in April and a 43 percent year-over-year increase from 434 in 2022.

Folk noted, “You know these guys are doing the crimes to feed their addictions, and I would say a good 85-90 percent of them it's fentanyl.”  
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