Now, Washington state needs more prison space

Women’s prison at Purdy has seen especially large population growth, just a few years after other facilities were closed

Staff writerOctober 28, 2013 

They don’t expect the Hilton, said the inmates crammed into a cell at the state’s women’s prison at Purdy, but a little elbow room would be nice.

There’s not much of that in a 12-foot by 7-foot cell shared by three women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. Tamra Morrow has the bottom bunk, Katherine Hudson is above her, and that leaves the floor for Lucy Rumel.

Thursday morning, lying on her four-inch mattress with an Amy Tan paperback to pass the time, Rumel described the conditions.

“You’re on the floor. It’s cement,” she said. “I just got a pillow today — I got a pillow finally. You wake up stiff and sore.”

Up to 30 women are in that situation at any given time at the prison near Gig Harbor. Prison officials argue overcrowding there is creating conditions ripe for fights and attacks. They want to start planning for a potential $16.5 million expansion.

The Department of Corrections says prisons for men are headed in the same direction. They want Gov. Jay Inslee and state lawmakers to also let them plan for a new men’s prison on the site of a former youth detention center in Grand Mound.

Lawmakers may not be enthusiastic about an expansion just a few years after closing three prisons to cope with budget shortfalls and a then-declining inmate population. They have pushed for other ways of finding space.

“Certainly there’s a population increase, but I think they have the capacity to absorb that, at least for a little while,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee. The Snohomish Democrat said of leaders from all four partisan caucuses of the Legislature: “We’ve been a little skeptical of a brand new facility.”

But Dunshee said he’s more inclined to look favorably on an addition to an existing prison, which would be less costly than the more than $175 million that could be required for a new prison at the old Maple Lane School.

The number of male inmates in state prisons has risen above 16,000 in recent months, climbing 2 percent to 3 percent from those same months a year earlier, more than twice as fast as Washington’s estimated population growth. Female inmates have increased at a much faster 5 percent in recent months — until September, when growth accelerated to 7 percent, the figure being cited by Corrections.

Female inmates are still a fraction of the prison population as a whole at just more than 1,350, and smaller numbers mean bigger swings in size. But if the growth continues, it will keep up the stress on WCCW, the state’s sole remaining women’s prison outside of a minimum-security work camp.

Reduced privacy and increased waits for a shower or phone call can fray nerves, while space constraints also make it harder to separate inmates who don’t get along or who identify with rival gangs.

Corrections officials told lawmakers that rates of violent infractions such as fighting, assaults and weapon possession “have increased by 34 percent since the end of 2011” in Washington prisons. That’s true, but it’s mainly because infractions were unusually low during one three-month period in 2011.

Overall, rates are roughly level in recent years and down since 2008 and 2009.

But at the women’s prison, infraction rates have gradually climbed over the same period.

An attack there last week might not have happened if two inmates who had fought earlier could have been separated after they returned from solitary confinement, prison officials say. “We would have housed them, when they came out of segregation, in different units,” said Kevin Mauss, associate superintendent of programs at WCCW.

But there was no other medium- or high-security space available, he said. So one inmate saw her chance to wield a makeshift weapon, prison officials said. She attached a broken bit of razor to a piece of plastic, officials said, and slashed the other inmate on her face and upper torso.

The infirmary sewed the victim up with 28 stitches. Officials said they would seek to prosecute the alleged attacker.

Hudson, an inmate in the crowded cell, said there are “personality conflicts when you have a lot of women in a confined space.” With only three working showers and three phones in the unit, her cellmate Morrow said: “Everybody gets irritated with each other.”

The prison has room for 764 inmates — 918 with “emergency capacity.” On Thursday, it held 933 women. Inmates end up in a security level where they don’t belong or on floor mats. Areas meant for other purposes are converted to bed space.

WCCW is known for its special programs. Inmates who give birth can keep their infants; there were 15 babies in the program last week. Women learn useful skills like transcribing Braille, gardening, and training and grooming dogs. Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said those programs reduce recidivism, but overcrowding threatens space for them.

“In order to reduce the demand for prison bed space in the future, you’ve got to have adequate space today” to do programs, Lewis said. “We can’t just offer them in the hallway.”

It may seem strange to hear about overcrowding just a bit more than two years after the closure of McNeil Island Corrections Center. A men’s and women’s prison in Eastern Washington closed around the same time.

But Corrections Secretary Bernard Warner said the Legislature closed less efficient older prisons. McNeil’s island location made it especially expensive. Now the agency says it needs new space, mostly in medium-security, where space isn’t keeping up with the numbers of inmates.

Warner said Washington’s unusually progressive sentencing system means there are not many ways to reduce the population. Many nonviolent sex and drug offenders already serve their sentences outside prisons. What’s left is mostly violent offenders.

Lawmakers allowed Corrections to open half of a new unit in August at the Walla Walla men’s prison. They also told officials to try to rent local jail beds; Warner said the department is about to choose jails for the program.

The department is asking Inslee to include $1.8 million in his proposed adjustments due out in December to the state’s two-year, $33 billion budget.

The money would pay for the first phase of work to prepare for tearing down an obsolete housing unit at the women’s prison that has been vacant for more than 15 years and replacing it with a new 96-bed unit.

It would also fund planning for renovating three buildings and building three larger units at Maple Lane School, the former juvenile center that fell to budget cuts. The number of inmates there would approach 1,000.

By using existing facilities, corrections officials reported to Inslee, they could take advantage of electrical, plumbing, heating and wastewater systems that are already in place.

jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.com
@Jordan_Schrade

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