During the first six months of operation, the new Thurston County jail has had its share of problems, according to Thurston County Sheriff’s Office officials.
As with the old jail, the new one, called the Accountability and Restitution Center, or ARC, is overcrowded, and some inmates are still being housed in other counties. The relocation was hard on staff, who filed several grievances during the first few months of operation.
Todd Thoma, corrections chief for the Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff John Snaza said the staff now seems to have settled in, and there are benefits to working in the new jail — especially with female inmates.
But Sgt. Jenny Hovda, president of the union that represents Thurston County’s corrections staff, said staffing levels in the jail are far too low, and some employees are uncomfortable with the new “direct supervision” system. She characterized overcrowding in the jail as a “housing crisis.”
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Some of us would rather be working in the old jail.
Sgt. Jenny Hovda, union president
“Some of us would rather be working in the old jail,” Hovda said.
A crowded jail
Thoma said on Feb. 11, 26 inmates were being held in the Lewis and Chelan county jails, but that number fluctuates. At times, only three or four inmates are held in contract housing, but the number is often in the 20s.
In 2014, in the old jail, an average of 19.2 inmates were held in contract housing. The total bill for contract housing was about $392,000 that year.
In December of that year, Snaza told The Olympian that he didn’t expect the contract housing situation to change much in the new jail — largely because of the number of mentally ill inmates.
The Lewis and Chelan county jails are willing to house only minimum- and medium-security inmates. So Thurston County jail staff must be creative when finding ways to house inmates who can’t safely be with the general population.
Thoma said 25 inmates are being housed alone in two-person cells, decreasing the jail’s capacity by 25 beds. Many of the inmates housed alone are mentally ill.
“Jails aren’t designed to be de facto mental health facilities,” Thoma said. “But that’s what we’ve become.”
The Accountability and Restitution Center can hold 491 inmates. On Feb. 11, it held 314 inmates, and 26 inmates were being held in contract housing.
On many nights, most or all of the holding cells in the booking area, which were designed to hold arrestees temporarily, are used as long-term housing.
One is occupied by a suspect in a hospital bed, who was shot during a confrontation with two bond enforcement officers.
Another cell houses an inmate who sleeps on a mattress on the floor, Hovda said. Because the cell wasn’t designed for long-term occupation, it features only a Turkish toilet, which is covered when the inmate’s mattress is laid on the floor.
“If I had a choice, I wouldn’t house him in there,” Hovda said. “But there’s not much we can do.”
On the night of Feb. 11, four of the holding cells were occupied by long-term residents. Around 10:30 p.m., the Washington State Patrol brought in a DUI suspect who was put in the last cell. Hovda said that if a combative suspect had come in, there would have been nowhere to put the suspect. Staff would likely have had to remove a mentally ill, long-term inmate from one of the holding cells to make room for the new arrestee.
“We would probably have to handcuff them to a chair for a while to keep them from wandering around,” Hovda said.
The total capacity of the jail is 491, including 96 beds in the Corrections Options annex, which houses and monitors offenders serving time on work release, day jail, electronic home monitoring and other programs.
On Feb. 11, the jail population was 314.
“The best way to describe it is that we’re full in certain places, but not in others,” Thoma said.
While the male dormitories are full, with inmates spilling over into other counties, the female dormitory typically isn’t at capacity. On Feb. 11, that 68-bed dormitory held only 40 female inmates.
“If you look at the numbers, it looks like we have space,” Thoma said. “But you can’t put males in with the females.”
Hovda said the influx of mentally ill inmates has had an impact on the minimum- and medium-security direct supervision dormitories. In this new system, inmates are housed in large, open dormitories, which each hold 68 inmates. The dormitories are staffed 24 hours a day by a single corrections deputy.
Theoretically, this system makes jail safer for both inmates and corrections deputies. Having a deputy physically in the room at all times — someone who can step in when problems arise — should reduce conflict.
The problem, Hovda said, is that because maximum security cells are taken up by mentally ill inmates, some people suspected of committing violent class A or B felonies are sometimes housed in the minimum- or medium-security dormitories.
“We have a direct supervision unit that has the potential to become very volatile,” Hovda said.
To solve the problem, Sheriff Snaza has recommended building phase 2 of the jail — or at least part of it.
In 2010, The Olympian reported that phase 2 of the jail, which would hold an additional 224 to 256 inmates, had been slated to be built as soon as phase 1 was completed. But when tax revenue dropped during the recession, the $20 million phase 2 was put on hold.
Snaza said he isn’t asking for the full phase 2. He said a 60-cell flex unit, which would be similar to the jail’s existing maximum-security dormitory, would make all the difference.
“We would be able to house mentally ill and high-risk offenders, and we would have some room to grow,” Snaza said.
“We were talking about a flex unit before we even moved in there,” he added.
Hovda said union members also are asking for a flex unit.
But how to get funding for the construction of a flex unit is unclear.
Snaza said that, in his opinion, a law and justice levy to fund the flex unit is off the table. He said that the money generated by the levy could be allocated to other county offices, such as the Prosecutor’s Office and the Office of Assigned Counsel.
“I’m not willing to go out and ask for money if it doesn’t benefit the community in a law enforcement way,” Snaza said.
In 2015, Thurston County corrections deputies filed 10 grievances — three before the ARC opened Aug. 15 and seven in the following months.
Complaint topics included overtime and sick leave practices, inmate searches and staffing levels.
“We had a couple employees who weren’t happy with the transition,” Snaza said. “We took a look at what they were saying and resolved the problems. We haven’t had any other grievances in the last two-and-a-half months.”
Thoma said the grievances were likely the result of a large amount of change in a short period of time. All of the grievances have been resolved, he said.
But Hovda argued that the grievances haven’t stopped because employees are any happier — they’ve just run out of options.
“We grieved, and we got our answers,” Hovda said. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
We’ve had our share of bumps, but we’re all working through them.
Todd Thoma, chief deputy for corrections
One deputy filed a grievance saying that jail employees work in an unsafe environment because not all arrestees are strip searched upon their arrival at the jail.
In a response letter, Thoma wrote that strip searching all inmates is unnecessary.
Under current policy, all inmates are patted down and taken through a metal detector. If jail staff believe that a suspect may be carrying contraband following these searches, they may then strip search the inmate.
“This has been a long-standing policy and is not unique to the recent move to the new facility,” Thoma wrote.
As for staffing levels, Hovda said that the maximum security unit in particular is a problem. Most of the time, only two deputies staff that area.
“Things get really hectic in there, so we would like to have more people,” Hovda said.
And because staffing is so tight, whenever someone is out sick, other employees have to cover the shift on overtime, she said.
“It gets exhausting,” Hovda said.
Snaza said he also has a problem with staffing levels. He said there are six vacant positions at the jail — and it’s been hard to find qualified candidates.
“Law enforcement agencies everywhere are hiring right now, so it’s been difficult,” Snaza said.
“I’m very sympathetic to that complaint,” he added.
Overall, the staff is happy, Thoma said. Jail management meets with the union monthly to discuss changes that need to be made — which seems to be a good way to make sure deputies’ concerns are heard, he said.
Thoma said inmates seem to be responding well to the new direct-supervision model. The arrangement allows deputies to intervene in disputes before they get physical, Thoma said.
The biggest difference can be seen in the jail’s female population.
I think the female dormitory is the greatest success story of the (Accountability and Restitution Center).
Todd Thoma, chief deputy for corrections
In the old jail, women were housed in a cramped unit, and disputes were common. It was hard for deputies to see what was going on in the unit and for them to intervene when problems arose.
“There were nothing but problems in that unit,” Thoma said.
“I think the female dormitory is the greatest success story of the (Accountability and Restitution Center),” Thoma said.
Deputy Denise Sullivan, who often supervises the female population, said the unit is run unconventionally.
“We look for ways to keep everyone entertained,” Sullivan said. “Holidays can be hard, so we try to keep that in mind.”
Since the new jail opened, the women have put on both a talent show and a holiday show. The audience consisted of the female inmates, deputies and civilian jail staff.
“Even those who weren’t participating were showing respect,” Thoma said. “It was pretty amazing.”
For Presidents Day last Monday, Sullivan put together some U.S. history trivia sheets.
The new jail has allowed for other inmate programming as well. In the old jail, there wasn’t much programming space. But in the new one, each unit has a room where classes can be held.
Thoma said jail staff has added a family component to the existing chemical dependency program, allowing loved ones to be a part of an inmate’s recovery. In the female dormitory, parenting classes and a program called “Seeking Safety” — which helps people cope with trauma, PTSD and substance abuse — are offered.
The male dormitories feature life skills classes, which will soon be offered in the female dormitory, too.
The physical structure of the new jail is much better than that of the old jail. The heating and cooling systems work properly, and the roof doesn’t leak. The radio signal is stronger, which means deputies can contact each other easily.
Thoma said he plans to keep the building in good shape.
“My goal is to have it look exactly the same in 10 years as it does now,” he said.