Governor may shrink prison

TACOMA - The state would downsize McNeil Island Corrections Center to less than half its current size to save money under a proposal from Gov. Chris Gregoire unveiled this week.

The facility near Steilacoom would go from a 1,200-inmate mostly medium-security prison to a 500- inmate minimum-security prison by the end of next year. About 250 jobs will leave McNeil, but many of those will be gained elsewhere in the system.

Gregoire said Wednesday that the McNeil downsizing is part of an overall plan to shut down and consolidate inefficient and outdated state facilities in light of the current $2.6 billion budget gap and a need for long-term savings.

“The actions combined will result in millions in savings for state government now, and even more in the future,” Gregoire said.

For the corrections department, the goal is to close older facilities with higher costs and consolidate inmates where it has beds, mainly at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center near the Tri-Cities, said Dick Morgan, Division of Prisons director for the state.

In addition to shrinking McNeil, the proposal also calls for:

Closing Ahtanum View Corrections Center in Yakima, Larch Correction Center in Yacolt, Pine Lodge women’s facility in Medical Lake and one wing of the old Main Institution of the State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Building new and more efficient units at Walla Walla.

Transferring medium-security offenders to Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, a 1980s facility that was expanded in 2006 and has excess capacity of about 1,600 beds.

Transferring minimum-security offenders to McNeil, Coyote Ridge and Mission Creek Correction Center for women.

All told, the state estimates the realignment would save $65 million over the next four years and would have savings beyond that as well.

A consultant for the state looked at the possible closure of McNeil, but ultimately it was rejected. The difficulty is that the prison is closely connected with the Special Commitment Center, the 300-bed Department of Social and Health Services facility for sexually violent offenders who’ve been civilly committed. The two facilities share infrastructure and overhead costs. Minimum security inmates provide labor for maintenance, and corrections officers provide security for the entire island.

“The costs of shutting off McNeil would be dramatic in terms of what to do with the Special Commitment Center,” Gregoire said.

If corrections must be maintained at McNeil, the consultant found that it makes the most sense to keep the 260-bed minimum-security unit and add another one, while transferring 737 medium-security beds elsewhere. McNeil is among the more expensive facilities to operate because of its isolation, but minimum-security prisoners are less expensive to supervise and can be used for work details.

“It’s much less expensive to operate the island for 500 minimum-security inmates than 1,200 medium-security inmates,” Morgan said.

The state facility consultant, Murray & Associates, estimated that the state would save $15.3 million a year through the McNeil downsizing by 2012.

Current employees can apply for transfer, based on their seniority and other factors weighed in the state policies, Morgan said.

The DOC will also continue to maintain facilities at McNeil in anticipation that units could be reopened if needed in the future.

State Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, expects that the governor’s prison realignment plan won’t encounter much opposition in a Legislature dominated by her Democratic Party. But he sees it as part of a flawed corrections strategy that grew out of the last session’s decision to slash post- release supervision and support for most convicts coming out of prison. He predicts many of those unsupervised people will be back in trouble again soon – and back behind bars.

“The savings are a mirage,” Carrell said. “It’s going to be a very temporary thing, because the prison population will eventually explode.”

Carrell wasn’t surprised at the downsizing plan for McNeil Island, which lies in his district.

“Given what’s happening, and the way the majority party is headed, it’s not a terrible option,” he said. “They are going to need a prison out there in some capacity.”

Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, questions the wisdom of shutting down prisons when economic conditions may cause a surge in crime and recidivism.

“I don’t believe it’s a done deal. We’re going to be lobbying in the upcoming session,” said Thompson, whose union represents 6,000 corrections workers statewide. “The public is going to be concerned – and there’s good reason to be concerned – about taking beds off-line.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.