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No Private Prisons in King County, Washington

On August 14, 2017, the King County Council in Washington State voted 8-1 to pass an ordinance prohibiting the county from contracting with private prison companies. The county does not currently use for-profit prisons and has contingency arrangements with other counties should additional jail beds be required.

Councilmember Dave Upthegrove introduced Ordinance No. 18560 in November 2016, to codify King County’s longstanding practice of not using private prisons. Washington State law is silent on that issue, and while a decades-old opinion by then-State Attorney General Christine Gregoire says cities cannot contract with private prisons, Councilmember Upthegrove introduced the ordinance out of concern that state law could change or another Attorney General might issue a different opinion. He said his intent was to “set the example here.”

Human Rights Defense Center campaign director Carrie Wilkinson presented testimony regarding the private prison industry, specifically related to problems created by the for-profit business model and the industry’s need to maintain and increasethe number of prisoners in order to stay profitable. Prison Legal News has reported on abusive conditions and other problems inherent within for-profit prisons for over two decades.

Wilkinson testified that in general, private prisons employ fewer staff, pay them less, offer fewer benefits and provide less training than in comparable public prisons. As a result, turnover is much higher which leads to understaffing as well as less experienced employees. Private prisons have a financial incentive to keep staff positions vacant because that results in reduced payroll costs and greater profits.

However, higher staff turnover, understaffing, less training and fewer experienced employees tends to result in higher levels of violence. Research has found for-profit prisons have more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable public prisons, as well as higher rates of assaults. [See, e.g.: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.22].

For these reasons, among others, the King County Council voted to bar the county from contracting with private prison companies to house county prisoners. 


Source: King County Ordinance 18560, passed by the Metropolitan King County Council on August 14, 2017 (signature report issued August 16, 2017)

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