A close look inside Seattle's sex-offender fortress

Only a judge can put somebody in King County's Secure Community Transition Facility (SCTF) in SODO, which has been open for more than a month now. But even then, a trip to the level-3 violent predatory sex offender housing must have a stamp of approval by counselors, therapists and correction authorities.

Located at South Spokane Street and Second Avenue South, the facility's typical residents will be violent sex predators. These people served prison time and finished a rigorous treatment program at MacNeil Island's Special Commitment Center. Most are men in their mid-to-late 40s or older and are out of shape from years of incarceration.

"It's not known when a court will move a qualified civilly committed sex offender into the SCTF," said Steve Williams, spokesperson for Washington State's Department of Social and Health Services. The DSHS facility is equipped for six residents, with capacity for 12.

Security measures

Twenty-five cameras see you in and out. To enter, residents press an intercom button and identify themselves. From the control room, a staff member then unlatches the door's magnetically controlled lock.

Past the door a concrete sidewalk follows a wall of earth-toned bricks rising 10 feet to black, wrought iron bars with a corridor of space opening to the sky. At the walkway's end is the sally port.

The sally port is a steel and glass box, with doors leading to the sidewalk, a meeting room, a visitor's bathroom and the facility's core. No two doors can open at once, and each can withstand 1,800 pounds of force.

Half-a-block away, a freight train from the Port of Seattle rumbles toward Georgetown, but inside it's quiet as a church on a Tuesday afternoon.

"We can't have a lot of community members coming into the facility," King County SCTF Manager Tabatha Yockey explained. "We have to take into account it is a secure facility."

The remodeling of the former warehouse, done by Western Ventures of Mountlake Terrace, began last January, and was completed in July. SODO business Guardian Security Services installed state-of-the-art systems that ensure overlapping security measures cover each point.

"The key thing is to assure the community of their safety, and to ensure treatment of our residents in a secure environment," said Dr. Alan Ziegler, DSHS administrator for the Less Restricted Alternative (LRA)/SCTF program.

Twenty employees are onsite, and next year their ranks will rise to 26.

"Residents will have the opportunity to transition into the community in a safe way, safe for the community and safe for the resident," Yockey emphasized. "There's always risk with this population, but I feel confident that the risk is low."

Living comfortably

Martha Stewart could easily give her stamp of decorative approval on the place. Creams, tans, and light gray color schemes complement each other, and there's a clean, pleasant smell, like a health clinic. Bright, lacquered wooden doors accent an overall calming decor.

Concrete floors stretch throughout the facility. The control booth overlooks a common area. A kitchen opens onto the commons where residents will cook and cleanup after themselves. They are not allowed to handle knives.

The cabinets and the kitchen-island are stained dark red with olive green countertops. Along the wall, above the counter, blond cabinets provide a contrast, while stainless steel appliances sparkle.

A large, central room features a plush area rug with couches, comfortable chairs and tables. The ceiling here rises two stories to a vaulted skylight that bathes the space with sun. Along the walls are six bedrooms - three to a side - plus a phone room, two baths, and a storage area.

The bathrooms and bedrooms don't have cameras, and the baths have showers but no tubs. You can lock a bedroom door from inside, but management has the key. Remote-controlled nightlights let staff observe the residents through their bedroom door windows.

The bedrooms resemble dorm rooms: a desk cubby, a chair and a single bed. Each has a unique bedspread, giving it a small, homey touch.

With no windows in the rooms, solar tubes send light down from the ceilings.

"If the individual has a night job, he can close it so he can sleep [during the day]," Yonkey said.

Works in progress

Each of the residents will be required to continue their treatment programs. During this process they'll learn how to integrate into society, shop, manage money and find jobs. There are individual and group therapy sessions each week. The therapy is meant to reinforce positive behaviors and counter negative ones.

Those with histories of alcohol and drug abuse may attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Residents are instructed to keep journals and share them with treatment providers.

"Part of the skill is learning how to deal with the situation," Ziegler explained.

"They are violent sexual predators who have earned their way into this facility through treatment and court process," said Yockey, who added that some have family support while others do not. "Getting a job will be a challenge [for them]. There will be staff [on the job] with them maintaining a line of sight at all times."

Notifying employers may cause problems, added Yockey. If an employer accepts them, the employees may not.

Trips outside the facility are approved by the SCTF manager and a Community Corrections Officer, whether it's to a bookstore or a walk outside. Whatever the case, the routes and destinations are scrutinized to ensure safety. Once outside the residents wear GPS bracelets, and they can't go where they aren't considered safe.

Most of the residents will have access to computers, but no Internet. Additionally, they are not allowed to watch certain videos and programs on the common TV.

"You can't become complacent," Ziegler stressed. "You're working with individuals with significant problems."

For all of this work, the state has provided mitigation to the city. For two years DSHS will spend $600,000 for facility coordination, police training, victim counseling and lights under the nearby West Seattle Bridge. In one case, a six-month project is slated to provide an onsight police presence.

"We've tried to diffuse community fears by having tours for local businesses," Ziegler said. "We view ourselves as a business in SODO. We view ourselves as neighbors."

Writer Craig Thompson may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

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