spokane county jail

Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

In a dramatic example of COVID-19’s impact on the criminal justice system, the number of people in Washington jails has plummeted in recent weeks, ending virtually overnight an overcrowding problem that plagued many facilities for years. Today, a few of the state’s smallest jails are reporting inmate populations in the single digits.

“Honestly, I would never have expected to see something like this in my lifetime and I’ve been doing this for 20 years now,” said Jose Briones, the chief deputy of the Island County Jail on Whidbey Island where the population has dropped by approximately half.

Courtesy Simone Hayes

Lorenzo Hayes, 37, was brought to the Spokane County Jail on the morning of May 13, 2015 for violating a domestic violence no contact order.

As officers escorted Hayes to a holding cell, there was a struggle. Jail staff took him to the ground and then placed him in a restraint chair. At some point, he stopped breathing.

Responding firefighters and paramedics performed CPR and got a heartbeat back, but Hayes later died at the hospital.

Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

The day the brand new Mason County, Washington jail opened in 1985, it was already full. The previous jail on the top floor of the courthouse held just over 40 inmates. The new facility wasn't much bigger.  

Nearly 35 years later, the one-story cinder block jail located in the town of Shelton now holds about 90 inmates on any given day. A few years back, as many as 150 people were crowded into the facility.