A 5-foot-by-6-foot room with a small bench and a Turkish toilet, which is essentially a grate in the floor, has become a make-shift maximum security area at the Thurston County Corrections Facility.
There is no bed, so a mattress and bedding are brought in.
The holding area was designed to give people who are too drunk or in the throes of a mental health crisis a place to wait as they are processed into the jail. But now it usually houses one inmate a night.
“We acknowledge that this is not appropriate,” said Todd Thoma, chief deputy of corrections, as he pointed to the space during a tour this week of the 110,000-square-foot facility.
Also in the intake area, a group of women sleep on mattresses on the floor of a darkened cell that was designed to hold people during a mass arrest situation, such as a downtown riot, Thoma said.
Sometimes, jail officials spread out mattresses in the facility’s video courtroom, too.
“We have used the medical area as well,” said Lt. Shawn Ball, who helped oversee the transition into the new jail. “… Those areas were not designed for long-term housing.”
Just two years after its opening in the Mottman Industrial Park in Tumwater, space is at a premium at Thurston County’s new lockup, which until recently was known as the Accountability and Restitution Center, or ARC.
Sheriff John Snaza said an upcoming expansion project for the jail will help alleviate what he and jail staff describe as severe crowding.
“When we moved into this facility just over two years ago, we already knew it was going to be overcrowded,” he said.
Snaza said the facility’s problems stem from one issue: A shortage of dedicated space for inmates with medium- and maximum-security classifications, and those with special needs.
“It seems like we have a lot of space, but the problem is that we’re dealing with mentally ill people and more violent offenders, and we’re also having people stay in our jail longer and they’re pretrial, before they even go to trial,” Snaza said. “We’re being asked to do so much with so little. We’re not doctors.”
The jail was built with 395 beds, but because of inmate classification issues and gender rules, dozens of beds can’t be used, officials say.
“There are a large number of people who require single cells because they’re either a danger to others, or they can be victimized,” Thoma said. Many of the cells that are being used by single inmates were designed to hold two or three people, he said.
Of the 335 inmates who were locked up on Thursday, 26 slept on mattresses on the floor, Thoma said. That night, 111 inmates were housed in the maximum security unit, with 10 sleeping on the floor, double and triple bunking in some of the cells. The area was designed to house 120 inmates.
To help with some of the crowding, jail officials reassigned the female maximum security unit to men. As a result, many of the people who are sleeping on the floor are women who were displaced by the reassignment, officials say.
The county contracts with Lewis and Yakima counties for jail beds, but those counties only accept minimum- and medium-security inmates, Thoma said. The jail also has four dormitories that hold 68 inmates each. On Thursday, the women’s dormitory wasn’t full, which is typical, Thoma said. However, women who are classified as maximum security or special needs can’t stay in the dormitories, he added.
The jail was finished in October 2010, and sat empty for five years, largely due to the recession and the county’s related budget woes.
During that time, county officials scrapped a plan to move forward with Phase II, which was supposed to begin immediately after the main jail was finished, Thoma said.
“Every citizen in this county is going to ask the same thing: ‘Why are they doing this? They’ve only been in there for two years,’” Thoma said of the expansion. “This is something that was part of the original scope of work that never took place because of the recession.”
The plans originally called for two more dorms, and another maximum security wing.
“Without the additional construction, we ultimately only gained about 11 beds from our old facility,” Ball said. “As it sits right now, we really only gained 11 beds.”
The previous County Commission asked staff to look into a variety of options, ranging from remodeling the old jail and bringing in a modular building to creating adult inmate space at the juvenile detention facility, said Martin Casey, director of Central Services.
“In the fall (of 2016), the board asked us to go forward with the original idea, which was to pursue the expansion of the (jail) with a focus on high and medium security beds,” Casey said. “The Sheriff’s Office said it’s the most needed.”
In June, the current three-member Board of County Commissioners hired Brady Knowles to serve as a project manager for the jail expansion.
Knowles and other county officials are touring other correctional facilities in the region to get ideas for the expansion. So far they’ve visited the Skagit County facility and one in the Kent and Des Moines area.
“We’re taking a real thorough approach to this design-build, and we’re trying to gather everyone’s opinions and knowledge and expertise,” Knowles said.
If everything stays on schedule, construction is expected to begin in about a year on a 20,000-square-foot addition for the jail, Knowles said. The deadline for firms to apply to design the new wing was Friday.
The $13 million project will be paid with money generated by the Real Estate Excise Tax, Martin said. Those fees are included in closing costs from property sales.
“Home buyers (and) sellers will not see an increase to the Real Estate Excise Tax,” said county spokesman Bryan Dominique. “REET is assessed at one-quarter of 1 percent of the real estate transaction. Based on the estimated cost of the jail expansion and the current and projected revenue of REET, the county will have enough funds to pay for the expansion without any increase to what is being paid in REET now.”
County officials say the new space will create 110 to 120 more maximum security beds. Thoma said he’d like to see an area of the expansion designed specifically for inmates with mental health issues.
Construction is expected to take 12 to 18 months.
In a long hallway in the existing jail, that’s a “football field and a half” in length, according to Ball, the wall features doorways that are filled with cinderblocks.
They will be knocked out during the expansion so that the main building and addition can be joined together.
“It was designed to expand,” Thoma said.
The new wing will be built in an area that’s a grass field, surrounded by razor wire. The site is large enough to accommodate even more expansion in the future, unlike the old jail that’s located in the county courthouse complex, Thoma said.
“Any time you have a county that grows, your inmate population will grow with it,” he said.
Snaza said the county has been working with Disability Rights of Washington, an advocacy group, to address crowding.
He said he also negotiated with the previous county commissioners to fund a study of the jail’s facility needs and staffing, and the findings are due out in November. The study will provide information that can help shape the new expansion, Snaza said.
“It talks about how our inmates are being treated, and how we feel about it,” he said. “…We don’t like the overcrowding part either.”