Washington prison officials are moving forward with a project in Thurston County that holds out the hope of better treatment for mentally ill offenders held behind bars. The Legislature provided about $4.8 million in its capital budget to start design work on the promising venture.
The project would replace the Maple Lane School in southwest Thurston County with a prison that specializes in mental health care. Up to a quarter of the state’s 17,000 inmates are treated for a serious mental illness, according to the Department of Corrections. Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, included the project in the capital budget approved by lawmakers last month.
The mental-health prison idea helps Corrections meet two challenges: a shortage of medium-security beds and a large number of mentally ill offenders. Like Republican Rep. Richard DeBolt of Chehalis, who worked on the capital budget with Dunshee, we don’t see a downside to the proposal.
Construction of the 700-bed prison facility would not begin until at least July 2017, and it would not be completed until sometime after July 2019.
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The state had a youth prison at Maple Lane until budget cuts closed it in 2011. DOC has operated a pharmacy there since October, dispensing medications to inmates across the state.
Prior to the pharmacy, the site was mentioned as a candidate for a new prison receiving unit, replacing the one at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. The mental-health facility is now the priority.
The entire project would ultimately cost $189 million. But Dunshee said the project could be phased in — with perhaps 200 or 300 beds in the first phase.
DOC says the primary mission of the project is to “enhance mental health services for offenders in order to maximize the likelihood of successful offender re-entry into the community.” Its written description of the facility goes on to say it would “provide an improved continuum of care” for offenders now incarcerated across DOC’s dozen prison sites.
In the short term, the Department of Social and Health Service also is looking at Maple Lane for locating a temporary, 30-bed mental health forensic facility. The state is under federal court order in the Trueblood case to stop holding mentally ill people in jails without timely evaluations and treatment. DSHS needs beds where forensic evaluations of a suspect’s mental health can be made within a seven-day deadline set by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman.
The capital budget gives DSHS $600,000 for renovations that would convert portions of the medium-security Maple Lane facility for that purpose. DSHS spokesmen say that is only one option and no decision has been made.
We see no reason why Maple Lane cannot serve short term as a site for this purpose, too. DSHS is one month into a 90-day comment period for a special use permit it is seeking from Thurston County. The agency plans a public hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Maple Lane School to hear comments from the community.
Both project ideas need to be fleshed out more fully, and the public needs to be kept well informed of what is in store. DOC plans to ask for public feedback when its project goes through an environmental review.
If there are concerns, agencies must address them forthrightly.