You can't blame the public for being confused.
Thurston County and its three largest cities are spending $1.15 million a year to send local inmates to other jails. Yet the county is sitting on a brand new $45 million jail that is vacant.
It looks to the average citizen like a terrible waste of tax money and resources.
But Sheriff Dan Kimball makes a strong case when he says the county simply doesn’t have the $3 million it would take to hire additional staff and open the new satellite jail at Mottman Industrial Park. That shouldn’t stop county officials from trying to find an alternative use for the new jail such as allowing a private contractor to operate the facility.
The Olympia City Council recently agreed to start shipping excess inmates to Lewis County at a cost of $492,750 next year.
Lacey spent $346,000 to have its misdemeanor offenders housed in Lewis County and the Nisqually tribal jail last year.
Tumwater will spend $115,000 next year to ship its inmates to Nisqually and Lewis County.
And Thurston County cannot house all of its inmates in the antiquated courthouse jail, so it spends about $200,000 a year to send female prisoners to the Lewis County jail.
Together, the four local jurisdictions are spending $1.15 million to house inmates in other communities and absorbing the transportation costs that go with it. At the same time we’re sending those hard-earned tax dollars elsewhere, the county is sitting on top of a brand new jail that’s sitting empty and will cost $430,000 next year just to keep the lights and heat on.
It seems insane.
Why not pull all those local prisoners back home, open the new jail and save the time and expense of shipping those criminal defendants outside Thurston County?
“I understand the public’s perception, but it’s more complicated than that,” says Sheriff Kimball. “We’ve crunched the numbers and crunched the numbers and crunched the numbers, and it just doesn’t pencil out. We’d need another $3 million to open the jail.”
Part of the reason is the design of the jail — formally known as the Accountability and Restitution Center. Under the direct supervision model used by county officials, the county correction officers will mingle among the inmates instead of watching them with television cameras from a centralized control room.
It is, Kimball said, a labor intensive supervisory model that is costly to operate. Yet studies show it’s less costly in the long run, Kimball said. There’s less violence in the jail, less vandalism and the guards can intervene more quickly as issues arise among inmates. As Kimball says, “They are right with them, so they know what’s going on.”
What the problem boils down to is money, Kimball said. The county simply doesn’t have the $3 million it would take to hire additional correction officers in order to open the new jail.
There’s another drawback to simply closing the existing jail, opening up the ARC and bringing all the prisoners back from Nisqually and Lewis County. It’s a matter of jail capacity, Kimball said.
One recent day, the county jail had 398 inmates. Not all were under the jail roof, however. Some were on home monitoring, some on work release and enrolled in other jail programs that cut the actual jail population to close to 300.
The first phase of the new ARC jail was designed to hold 352 inmates. It’s unlikely that the county could bring its female felons home, and house all the Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater inmates without exceeding the capacity of the new jail. Then the cities would be right back in the business of buying new jail beds elsewhere, Kimball said. And the county would have no room to operate the program it plans to offer in an attempt to set inmates in a new direction and stop the repeat offenders from coming back to the county lockup.
Don Krupp, the county’s chief administrative officer, must continue to search for creative ways to operate the new satellite jail. He says, “I think there is a really high likelihood that the facility will find several different interim uses.”
Let’s hope so.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Kimball admits the public perception is working against county officials. It seems like the county is wasting money by spending a half million dollars to keep a new jail empty while at the same time local inmates are being housed elsewhere at a cost of more than a million dollars a year.
“I get it. I totally understand what the public thinks,” Kimball said. “But there simply isn’t $3 million to open the new jail. The county doesn’t have it.”
He adds, “It’s a mess. I can’t lie to people — it’s a mess.”
We suspect the public would second that.