To: Ken Ray (DAJD director, King County)
Date: January 12, 2005
Subject: Request for Jail Photographs
Dear Mr. Ray,
I have asked the Department of Adult Detention about getting recent pictures of the inside of King County Jail. I’m most interested in the specific isolation cells on the seventh floor where I spent several weeks pre-trial in 2004. I’d also appreciate photos of the common areas, booking rooms, and the holding tanks used to move prisoners to the municipal court (though these are of secondary importance). If images are not readily available, I’ve offered to come onsite and take them myself. Obviously none of these photos would feature guards or inmates.
My desire to acquire this documentation stems from a larger objective of building a comprehensive and “reality-based” roadmap of Seattle’s mental health landscape. I am sure that a civilian review board exists that understands most of the puzzle. Yet the complexity of managing the mentally ill has given rise to institutional structures that easily baffle the average person…not to mention clients of the system. There is no question that some of these clients have developmental disabilities preventing them from navigating the clearest of situations. Yet I speak from experience when I say that the facilities themselves play a big role in disorienting those who might otherwise be much more compliant. This aspect is not adequately captured in words.
The hopeful outcome of such openness would be to bring more public attention, understanding, and funding to the area. Despite that, this request has been orally denied in visits with several jail officials. They cite security reasons that exempt this information from the umbrella of disclosure that applies to other public facilities. Elizabeth at the Department of Adult Detention was willing to give her first name and serve as a spokesperson for refusing the inquiry. Yet she indicated that even a written denial signed by a representative of the D.A.D. would only be provided in the event of legal action against King County.
Though I have not yet been able to get a truly explicit rationale of your department’s policy, there are three main reasons that I can think of offhand:
* Increased jailbreak potential from exposure of locking mechanisms, window barriers, and cell layouts.
* The safety of a civilian photographer in a potentially unstable environment.
* Serving every photograph request would lead to increased costs and administrative burden.
It seems to me that we could strike a compromise that would serve the interests of operational "transparency" while addressing these concerns. The visible features of the cells are extremely simple and could be verbally recounted or drawn by anyone who has been inside, so the first issue does not seem relevant (especially if cell numbers or other identifying information were voluntarily "blacked out"). Since physicians and lawyers are admitted on a regular basis, I would also not be personally concerned with safety of a visitor…and a waiver of liability could also ease this concern. The third points to some possible solutions, such as limiting the number of requests served on a semi-annual or annual basis.
As for whether a lawsuit deemed to have merit by a court should be a prerequisite to any official response, I’ll only suggest that few inmates who spend time in the facility could reasonably afford to file legal action. Additionally, a case against King County might be disproportionately difficult to sell to judges who are (understandably) empathetic to the constraints placed on their peers in the correctional system. In any event, I only ask that an "in writing" expression of that policy be provided--outside the context of a lawsuit.
Thank you for your time.