Clark County Jail update to focus on inmate population


The Clark County Jail isn’t currently at capacity, but improvements to facilities are still in the works.

During a March 15 “council time” meeting, the Clark County Council heard an update on jail operations from county jail services director David Shook. Shook has provided regular updates to the council since they approved the establishment of the jail services department last year. The county took over the operations of the jail from the Clark County sheriff and put it in the hands of appointed county staff.

Shook’s update focused on the jail’s inmate population, while touching on what’s in store for jail improvements.

The Clark County Jail had 425 inmates as of March 9. Shook has fielded questions about why the jail can’t house more people because of claims it once had 800 inmates.

“There’s not a consistent way that this facility, over the years, has really been evaluated,” Shook said.

The facility began in 1984 with 300 beds, Shook said. From 1989 to 2001, more beds were added. The current facility has 695 beds including the jail work center.

Shook said different interpretations of the jail’s capacity has led to confusion among those who are interested in how many inmates the facility can hold.

“Every time I looked at a different document, it had a different number of beds,” Shook said.

The capacity differed from the low end of 385 given by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to the higher capacity of 540 done by a 2019 staffing analysis, according to Shook’s presentation.

The typical cell was originally built with a single bed and a bunk was added later on, Shook said. In some cases, the cells had been triple-bunked.

“That’s a pretty small room for three people to exist over days and months and years, sometimes,” Shook said.

Shook also showed the council a more open, dormitory-style area in the jail. Although the space has been used to house upwards of 30 individuals, he noted the area only has two toilets and a shower.

“Think of 30 individuals … having to take care of their basic needs with two toilets and one shower,” Shook said.

In 2020, jail staff measured the entire facility in an attempt to find enough space to house inmates under COVID-19 guidelines, Shook said. The exercise came up with 491 inmates, which he said is the most the facility should have when it’s full. 

“We probably never want to get to 100% occupancy because we have issues that go along with that,” Shook said.

He mentioned a recent drug overdose in a facility that led to a dozen inmates being moved, which in a full-capacity situation would be difficult to manage.

For other situations requiring separation, he said the jail has to deal with inmates who are a danger to themselves or others, vulnerable inmates and co-defendants.

More than half of the jail’s population includes inmates accused of high-level offenses with an average length of stay of 260 days, Shook said. He said there are some inmates who have been in the facility for more than three years as they await trial.

“We have some folks that have been languishing in this facility that’s made more for temporary status and staying,” Shook said.

Clark County Councilor Glen Yung said the 1,200 days is a “mind-blowing statistic.”

“Is there anything that we can do to shorten that?” Yung asked.

Shook said COVID-19 restrictions have exacerbated the length of those stays, adding the longer times are for crimes that are “pretty egregious.”

Clark County Manager Kathleen Otto said the county’s goal is to get inmates through the system efficiently to free up beds. Otto said she organized a meeting with other elected officials who oversaw the county’s criminal justice process last year.

“There were some tough discussions on that and I think different stakeholders had some different views on what was happening,” Otto said.

Of the current population, Shook said 49 people are there post-sentencing. He said the jail administration is trying to figure out why they are still housed there. In some cases, it is due to medical evaluations or final administrative aspects of the justice system, he said.

The jail has experienced success with staff recruitment, as Shook said five new staff members will start on April 5 with the potential of another 11 that will be added soon. He said the department is in the process of replacing a corrections officer with extensive experience in internal intelligence.

Clark County Council Chair Karen Bowerman said Shook has a strong understanding of jail operations, which includes specific numbers on how many inmates are affiliated with criminal gangs.

“Having the director of the jail know those things and be able to act on them is important, in my judgment and in the judgment of most, I believe,” Bowerman said.

Shook said the jail is required to provide the standard of “constitutional care.” That standard requires basic needs to be met and is governed by changes in best practices or lawsuits, among other factors.

“My direction, our direction as a leadership team, is making sure that we’re following these basic requirements, needs and trends nationally with the inmate population,” Shook said.

For future jail developments, Shook said the county has published a request for a proposal to improve the jail either through a remodel or new construction.

“It’s about having the right kind of facility to manage our current, sometimes complicated inmates effectively,” Shook said.

Otto said whoever gets approved through the request will look at the current jail facilities to see what works best.

“We’re not telling them we only want to see (one result), we want them to evaluate everything in detail and come back with (a recommendation),” Otto said.