Challenges stall new jail, but move is set for July

Officer hirings, tech updates push back opening of county’s restitution center

ckrotzer@theolympian.comJanuary 27, 2013 

It will be at least another five months before Thurston County’s new $43.5 million jail opens because of delays in hiring corrections officers and ensuring new technologies are ready.

Major construction on the 100,000 square-foot Accountability and Restitution Center finished in 2011, with an opening date originally set for the start of this year.

It was “naive optimism” that pushed the county toward the January deadline that late last year was determined to be too ambitious, County Manager Don Krupp said.

The deadline did not give the county enough time to hire and train the staff needed to operate the new facility. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of those who apply fail the background tests, Corrections Chief Deputy Todd Thoma said.

It’s not just jail staff going through changes.

Each department connected to the jail, including the Prosecutor’s Office, Office of Assigned Counsel, Superior and District Court and more, are undergoing changes in policy and procedures, like moving to paperless filing and expanding on video court.

“A lot of people don’t realize corrections is a hub to the entire law and justice system,” Thoma said. “All are connected to the jail and our processes, either to support us or we support them.”

A more realistic goal has been set for July 1, giving time for the Sheriff’s Office to hire and train qualified staff and ensure new technologies and policies are ready for the move.

HIRING OFFICERS

The hiring of new corrections officers has been difficult, with under-qualified applicants coupled with the usual attrition and retirement that comes with a staff of more than 100.

The county budgeted for 20 new hires, increasing the jail staff to 125 positions for 2013.

Thurston County is contracting with Public Safety Testing, a company that tests and lists qualified applicants for law enforcement to interview.

The background process takes 90 days, said Thoma, looking for previous drug, criminal, employment and credit history.

Drug use and criminal history are the most common disqualifying factors, Thoma said.

Those who pass the first phase move on to a polygraph, psychological and medical evaluation. Only 25 percent to 30 percent of those make it through the final steps.

LONG TIME COMING

Voters approved a detention sales tax measure in 1995 to collect funds specifically for a new jail to replace county’s aging facility built in 1978.

The additional tax funds also went toward the construction and operation of the juvenile detention facility off 32nd Avenue in Tumwater. At that time, the county was looking to build the new jail with room for 240 beds at Mottman Industrial Park in Olympia, Krupp said.

Those plans were scrapped when then-Sheriff Gary Edwards showed an interest in building a regional justice center on property next to the juvenile detention center.

The county held a special election in 2004 for the bond measure to build the regional justice center, which was ultimately rejected by voters.

Focus went back to the new jail, which broke ground in 2007 in the same spot as the proposed regional justice center.

“We still had jail crowding problems, so we just rolled up our sleeves to go back to the original plans to use this detention sales tax to fund a new jail facility,” Krupp said.

CRAMPED QUARTERS

Thurston County Jail is on the county courthouse campus off Lakeridge Drive in close proximity to a steep cliff, leaving little room to expand as the inmate and staff population continues to grow.

The staff’s only locker room is a 5,000-square-foot structure no bigger than a walk-in closet with 40 lockers for a staff of 105. As many as three staffers use one half-size locker. Men and women share the same locker room.

Contracted public health officials are working out of a renovated storage area, moving the stored items to one of the jail’s sally ports. With no formal room to conduct mental health evaluations, inmates and counselors pull up a chair in the middle a hallway just feet away from more inmates waiting to make their first appearances by video court.

The jail’s original kitchen was designed to feed 86 inmates at a rate of 1,806 meals per week. The kitchen put out an average of 8,575 meals per week last year and even upwards of 10,000 meals per week when the jail population was at its peak, Thoma said.

The main jail has room for about 316 beds, below the average 320 inmates in custody last year. That is up from an average of 302 inmates in the general population in 2008.

Inmates involved in the work release program are housed in an aging trailer added next to the jail in 1995. The structure with 92 bunk-style beds was meant to be a temporary solution that has been used for more than three times than anticipated and has fallen to disrepair with leaks and rotting floors.

The number of female inmates also has risen from an average of about 54 in 2008 to 69 in 2012. Mentally ill inmate numbers also are up, with limited places to safely hold them away from the general population.

Some of the mentally ill inmates are kept in the same single-housing maximum security inmate areas, or in holding cells converted into permanent housing.

One area dubbed “the Charlie Tank” holds low-risk mental health, protective custody, special needs and medical-needs inmates all in the same area.

“They should be separated,” Thoma said. “We would have them separated, but we are forced to mix and cross our fingers.”

CHANGING CONSTRUCTION MODEL

Construction of the new jail originally consisted of three phases: the main jail facility, a flex-unit with two additional dorms and a work release unit.

The plan was to move inmates to the new jail after the first phase was complete, operating from two jails during construction of the final two phases.

Construction was more than a third of the way complete when the recession hit in 2008. Because money for the jail was earmarked from the detention sales tax dollars, commissioners chose to finish the first phase of the project.

Even if commissioners had decided to halt construction until the economy improved, the construction money could not have been used elsewhere.

“We would have lost out on millions of dollars,” Thoma said. “There would have been slabs of concrete and rebar and partial plumbing just sitting out there, so the decision was to complete it and maintain it instead of losing on all that money wasted in construction.”

To mothball the project would have meant to take money from the country’s dwindling general fund.

“The general fund would have been in much worse shape than the economic recession has given it,” Krupp said.

Construction continued and the basics of the main jail facility, including the kitchen, medical area, administrative offices, outdoor sally port and eight housing units, was finished in early 2011.

Those basic areas toward the center of the building are built larger than what is needed by current staffing and inmate population because they are areas that could not be expanded in the future.

“We designed the ARC with the future in mind,” Thoma said.

That doesn’t include housing. As of now, the jail has enough housing to cover its current inmate count, but if numbers keep rising, the jail will soon need the flex unit and additional dorms.

The eight housing units already constructed are made up of four large dorms for 68 inmates, with direct supervision by corrections officers and a maximum security area with four smaller units with room for 30 single-cell inmates each.

The completed jail sat empty until the commissioners agreed to move forward with the work release center. The jail unit does not have enough capacity for all of the inmates.

With that additional building, a third-party consultant said the county could safely move into the new jail without the immediate construction of the flex unit or additional dorms.

The county paid $290,000 in 2012 to cover maintenance for the jail as it sits, said Robin Campbell, fiscal manager. Another $160,000 is in a maintenance reserve fund.

Thurston County’s 2013 budget has $336,000 set aside to begin the design and development of the flex unit, which provides flexible housing for women, the mentally ill and those under assessment. The unit does not need to be built before the inmates and staff can be moved to the new facility.

Those funds do not cover construction costs. The unit would be built at a later date, using money from either the county’s general fund, detention sales tax revenue or real estate excise tax funds, said Krupp.

“It is not a perfect solution, but it’s doable,” Thoma said, adding that the flex unit would provide more beds for inmates, as well as more options for housing the female and mentally ill inmates based on demand.

With the property available on site, Thoma said the jail could potentially grow to house as many as 1,000 inmates.

“The property was purchased with the intent of having future potential for growth, so not to duplicate the problems being faced now,” Thoma said.

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 ckrotzer@theolympian.com theolympian.com/thisjustin @chelseakrotzer

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