Up until three months ago, Washington state leaders said closing the McNeil Island Corrections Center was a bad idea, a money-loser.
The head of the Department of Corrections said it. Budget-crunchers said it. The governor said it.
The nation’s last island prison was expensive to run, they agreed – but shutting it down completely would pencil out in red. A study by the state Office of Financial Management ran the numbers in November 2009.
“If the corrections center were closed, the high cost of operating a prison on an island would be eliminated, but the cost to the state would go up,” the study said.
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Those predictions ran into a grim economy and across-the-board budget cuts announced late last year.
Now state leaders are shutting the prison down as quickly as possible, killing the prison buildings in a process known as “cold closure,” touting the savings
and downplaying the not-so-hidden costs associated with shifting bills from one agency to another.
“It is a decision we have weighed and gone back and forth on,” Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said when the closure was announced in November. “It seemed inevitable.”
The bigger bills would come from the state’s Special Commitment Center, the other occupant of the 4,445-acre island – where some 280 of the state’s most dangerous sex offenders are confined in civil commitment. The state Department of Social and Health Services operates the facility.
While the Corrections Department will save an estimated $12 million per year from the McNeil closure, DSHS will pay a premium for some services its sister agency used to provide for pennies on the dollar, using inmate labor at 42 cents per hour.
Approximately 150 minimum-security inmates, working under the direction of DOC staff, picked up tasks such as fire protection, water treatment and support duties on the ferry that runs between the island and the mainland.
With DOC departing, those duties will have to be covered by state employees earning state salaries and benefits set by union contracts.
State lawmakers handed DSHS an extra $5.6 million to handle the new costs over the biennium, but agency leaders admit the number is a guess – perhaps a low one. In 2009, internal reckoning at DSHS pegged the added annual operating costs at $12 million.
Is $5.6 million enough?
“We’ll see,” said Kelly Cunningham, CEO of the commitment center. “It’s what I’m working with. There’s no way to determine what it’s going to be in the future.”
Although there is a statewide hiring freeze, the Office of Financial Management has approved hiring 32 to 35 new positions, which include fire captains, boat captains, deckhands, wastewater treatment operators and a plumber.
There isn’t a way for people holding these jobs with the DOC to transfer to DSHS (the agency doesn’t have a job classification for boat captains), but Cunningham said they stand a decent chance of regaining their jobs if they apply.
“It’s my intent to hire as many of those people back as possible,” he said. “They’ve been doing this a long time, and they know the island.”
Some positions have been posted, and hiring is expected to be done by April so as to not to disrupt operations on the island.
State Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, fears the prison closure is a prelude to closing the Special Commitment Center – and a possible shift of hundreds of violent sex offenders to somewhere else, such as Western State Hospital in Lakewood.
“They’re gonna say, ‘Well, we’ve now looked at it and we need to move the sexual psychopaths off the island, too.’ I will fight that,” he said.
Cunningham said the prospect is unlikely.
“Given the controversy surrounding our program, given public opinion, I just don’t see us being moved,” he said. “No one’s ever talked to me about that – ever.”
Meanwhile, with an April 1 deadline looming, Corrections Department officials are checking items off a 10-page list of what must be done before abandoning the prison facility and transferring oversight of the island to DSHS.
The prison, which once held 1,200 inmates, has steadily dropped its population. Last week, it was down to 70. By mid-March, the number will be 20. April 1 is the closing date, but a handful of inmates working in fire protection and ferry service will remain until June.
The departing inmates are scattering across the state – some to the Larch Corrections Center in Vancouver, more to the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Eastern Washington.
Corrections Department employees will follow, which creates another complication.
Some of the McNeil Island staff members – those with seniority – will shift to the nearby Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy. Those with less tenure will have to move out of the Puget Sound region – either to Southwest Washington or Eastern Washington.
Tugboats will continue to deliver goods to the Special Commitment Center, but the number of daily ferry runs between Steilacoom and McNeil Island should drop to 11 from 18.
There no longer will be an armed emergency response team on the island. Its fire force is now nonexistent, and it’s unknown who will stand guard in the station that sits about a mile from shore down a bumpy gravel road.
It’s possible the center might form a volunteer fire department or revamp an agreement with Pierce County fire districts.
Instead of protecting the prison, the center and roughly 50 homes where prison personnel once lived, firefighters now will be responding only to the Special Commitment Center.
The homes and schoolhouse are boarded up. Electricity and water have been turned off.
The Special Commitment Center’s future water needs are still being assessed.
“The amount of water we need now is ridiculously small,” said Tracy Guerin, chief of staff for DSHS.
The steering committee has yet to decide how many wastewater treatment plants need to be maintained and how much potable water is enough for the 286 residents and 420 employees at the center.
Another cost Corrections Department leaders rarely mention ties to the prison buildings themselves.
Since 1990, the state has spent $165 million on various upgrades to the island facility. Now those buildings are being killed with cold closure – a term of art for abandonment.
It means capping off the ventilation systems, draining water pipes, clearing sewers and turning off the heat, foreclosing the possibility of preservation for future needs.
Anything else becomes a salvage operation, ultimately followed by demolition.
“We’re essentially walking away from that facility,” said Bernie Warner, the state’s director of prisons.
Agency leaders ran the numbers before making the decision. A “warm closure” – leaving the heat at 50 degrees and preserving the internal systems – would have cost $500,000 a year, they said.
Many of the island roads will be left to decompose, along with the abandoned houses formerly occupied by staff members and the historic superintendent’s mansion.
Staff members with the state’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation recently toured the prison site, scouting for what might be saved.
“We definitely got the impression that there’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of unanswered questions,” said Greg Griffiths, the state’s deputy historic preservation officer.
Carrell laments the waste.
“I am very sad and disappointed at what I have seen and what has transpired,” Carrell said. “I’ve tried to find the numbers that would prove to me that it would make good sense to throw away perfectly good buildings.
“With no thought of what they can do to find another use for this, they’re going pell-mell toward absolute destruction, like a meth addict ripping all the wiring out of the house.”
Until last November, Corrections Department leaders had lobbied to keep the prison open with a few hundred inmates, preserving capacity and inmate beds for inevitable growth.
Now leaders say they’ll build a new prison reception center elsewhere in the state that will provide new capacity at lower cost. That site has not been selected or budgeted yet.
WHAT DSHS INHERITS
Without the Corrections Department’s involvement, DSHS will take over agreements with the state Department of Ecology, which has a dock on the island used during an annual roundup of the area’s harbor seals.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also holds an island stake: a 3,119-acre wildlife refuge off-limits to the public.
“We will be responsible for the whole island,” said Cathy Harris, the commitment center’s associate superintendent.
That responsibility includes security – another duty the Corrections Department used to handle.
Cunningham said he’s worried about it. Carrell cites the ease of reaching the island by boat. Anderson Island is a quarter-mile away. Abandoned homes and a perimeter road that circles the whole of McNeil Island present attractive options for anyone with a mind to party.
“With nobody to guard the chicken coop, there will be people coming over and just squatting,” Carrell said. “They’re not gonna have a clue about what’s happening at night in those houses.”
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653