Spokane County Detention Services director to step down

John McGrath, the director of the Spokane County Detention Services department, is stepping down next month.

Spokane County Detention Services director to step down
John McGrath
McGrath has already submitted a formal letter of resignation to the county's Human Resources Department and sent out an email to county staff on the morning of Jan. 9 regarding his decision to leave the position. His last day will be Feb. 18.

"After careful thought and consideration, I wanted to let all of you know that I have decided that the time is right for me to step down as the director of Detention Services and pass the baton onto new leadership," McGrath wrote in his email to county employees. "

McGrath also says in his email that he informed the Spokane County Board of Commissioners of his decision to leave the position last week, and that his formal date of departure next month was selected to "allow for a smooth transition" of leadership for the agency.

"We’ve got a month to determine an interim plan and a long term strategy for filling the position," Spokane County spokesperson Jared Webley tells the Inlander.

McGrath did not indicate in his message that he already has a specific job lined up elsewhere. Webley says that McGrath told him that he is "keeping his options open at this time."

McGrath, who has worked for Spokane County for the past 12 years, has held the reins of managing Spokane County's two detention facilities, the jail north of the county courthouse in downtown and Geiger Corrections Center on West Plains, as director since 2013. His tenure was marked with controversy due to the longstanding issue of inmate overcrowding in the county jail — the 29-year-old facility was originally built to hold 462 inmates and currently houses over 650 people — and a string of inmate deaths in the facility over the past 14 months. Sparks also flew when Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich charged that officials at Geiger Corrections Center had tainted a criminal investigation into one of their staffers regarding a rape allegation.

At the same time, McGrath also received praise from some criminal justice reform advocates as being collaborative and transparent. Jacqueline van Wormer, an assistant professor of criminology at Whitworth University and former criminal justice administrator for Spokane County's Regional Law and Justice Council, says that McGrath welcomed an idea from her when she was first hired by the county to bring in experts from the National Institute of Corrections to evaluate the county jail.

"Literally one of the very first things I did was contact the National Institute of Corrections and ask them to come in and do that independent evaluation of the jail," she says. "I found John at that time to be very supportive of that idea. He opened up the jail to NIC."

McGrath also independently commissioned Lindsay Hayes, a nationally recognized expert in suicide prevention policies in correctional institutions, to evaluate the county's suicide protocols last summer following the inmate deaths. (He recently told the Inlander that his agency planned to implement all of Hayes' recommendations.)

"John had his strengths, he had his weaknesses, I wish him all the best," Knezovich tells the Inlander.

Of the challenges that McGrath's replacement will have to face, Knezovich says: "It’s the same issue that’s been for 40 years over there, there is a certain culture that needs to be changed within the jail and the jail truly does need a facility that works with him and not against him." (The sheriff has long advocated for building a new jail facility to address the overcrowding issue.)

"If you’re looking at what the next guy needs to be successful, they’re going to have to be a change agent that works on culture and the community is going to have to give him the [money] necessary to bring the jail up to the standards we need," he adds.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French declined to comment on McGrath's resignation.

In his email to county staff, McGrath also thanked the broader criminal justice community in Spokane: "I would also like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to those persons supporting the work of Detention Services including the leaders of our local criminal justice agencies, nonprofit and charity organizations, volunteers, contractors, community leaders, friends of the department and many more," McGrath says. "Over the years they’ve given unfailing support and encouragement to our rehabilitation work for persons in custody. Despite the difficulties and adversities, we have faced, together we have strived for the building of a harmonious and stable system of justice. I wish you all success as you move forward."

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Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.