The Department of Corrections announced three finalist locations for a new facility to screen and hold newly imprisoned inmates. No. 1 is next door to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.
Ranked No. 2 was a site in Kitsap County site near Bremerton formerly proposed for a NASCAR race track. The soon-to-be vacated Maple Lane School near Grand Mound in Thurston County ranked No. 3 among 15 sites that were submitted in 11 different proposals. The finalists would receive a formal environmental impact study and a final site could be picked by December.
Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail told The Olympian's editorial board this week that building a reception center is much cheaper than building a new prison, and he has sent that message to lawmakers. The Legislature also is weighing whether to grant early freedom to anywhere from 100 to 800 non-violent inmates as a short-term cost savings in the face of a budget crisis.
Corrections has a reception center for incoming inmates at Shelton but it is over-full and takes up beds in the prison itself. The department has closed its McNeil Island prison as part of an efficiency move, but a new reception center frees up potentially 1,200 to 1,500 beds at Shelton to help DOC with expected growth in inmate populations by 2016.
The first two sites "score much higher than the Maple Lane site," Vail said. But criteria in the agency's review did not take fully into account the state’s gain from using existing space.
Maple Lane School, which is a medium to high security youth prison, has a perimeter and other infrastructure that could be reused for administration of the center. So Maple Lane could get a higher ranking, although it also requires land-use approval by Thurston County commissioners, Vail said.
"We want to look much closer," Vail said.
If Maple Lane were chosen, the state likely would build new incarceration units next door and use existing buildings for staff operations.
Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County represents the 20th Legislative District and said this week he is not opposed to such a project. But he said the Democrat-controlled Legislature is making the wrong decision by shifting youth inmates out of Maple Lane School and building some replacement space at the Green Hill facility in Chehalis.
Alexander said the Democrats' plan is aided by about $16 million in the pending House capital budget proposal for 2011-13.
At this point, the House capital budget does not include funding for the reception facility project, according to Vail. The Senate plan is expected next week.
Republican Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester, which is not far from the site, has expressed interest in converting Maple Lane School if its closure cannot be blocked.
Vail said some communities worry that a prison can draw families of the prisoners into a community. But that doesn't happen with a reception center, because inmates are held there for just a couple of months, unless they have medical problems.
The reception center allows the state to screen inmates to learn their medical, mental health and drug-treatment needs, as well as educational needs, gang affiliation and other characteristics.
In its announcement today, DOC said "(t)hese sites were selected based on a range of physical, environmental, engineering and community characteristics." And it quotes prison director Bernie Warner as saying the agency wants to keep residents involved in the site selection.
And it has set up a web page devoted to the process of picking a Western Washington site.
An ideal site would be near populated King County, but Vail said no proposals were submitted for that.
The state has talked to Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza about use of the county’s new, but unused regional corrections facility. But Vail said the facility was built for 358 beds and he needs one that can hold over 1,000.
"There are potentials but nothing concrete yet. They didn't offer that up to us as a reception site," Vail said.
A similar story is in the works for tomorrow's print editions of The Olympian.