Waiting on Phase II: Thurston County jail expansion paused while crowding persists

Almost two years ago, The Olympian ran a story about the Thurston County Corrections Facility (TCCF) and its overcrowding issues.

Women were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, in cells not meant for long-term stays. Temporary holding cells designed for people with extreme behaviors were serving as makeshift housing. Jail officials would sometimes lay out mattresses for inmates in the video courtroom.

A potential solution was in sight: Officials estimated an upcoming expansion project would lead to a new wing opening in late 2019 or early 2020.

County leaders are having ongoing discussions about the expansion, and preliminary designs are in progress. But construction on what corrections officials call a “flex unit” has yet to begin. And overcrowding persists.

“Not a whole lot has changed except for the date,” Chief Deputy of Corrections Todd Thoma told The Olympian last week.

The county plans to talk about a possible jail expansion, in what sounds like broad strokes, at a public meeting this week.

More than the numbers

Based on numbers alone, it doesn’t seem like TCCF should be crowded.

The lockup can hold 395 inmates in its main facility. On Wednesday night, 285 inmates were housed there. The total population the jail serves — including those in work release and electronic monitoring — has trended down in the last two years, from an average of 478 people per day in 2017, to 448 in 2018, to 417 on the average day so far this year, according to data provided by corrections officials.

Chief Thoma credits the work the county has done to develop programs such as its therapeutic courts, the expansion of pretrial services, an Innovative Justice work group, the First Look program, and ongoing efforts by law and justice stakeholders for a declining low-level offender population. Thoma said those efforts divert people from the jail system early in the criminal justice process, before a case is formally resolved.

The average population per day of minimum- and medium-custody inmates — again including those in work release and electronic monitoring — was nearly 335 in 2014. It jumped up to about 350 in 2016, and has dropped steadily since, to about 319 per day so far this year.

On the average day this year, Chief Thoma said TCCF has processed about 17 new bookings: people accused of committing crimes that range from traffic violations to first-degree murder. Each person’s housing arrangement is determined based on a classification that takes into account their alleged crime, criminal history, special needs, behavior, and other factors. That arrangement is reevaluated often, officials said.

One example Thoma gave of a typical minimum-custody inmate is a person who comes in calm on a low-level charge. That person can be housed in a 68-bed, open-concept dorm with privileges such as a TV, vending machines, and a rec yard.

Abbi Scott (left) and Jessica Oleachea relax in the women’s dormitory cellblock at the Thurston County Corrections Facility in Tumwater on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. The added freedom of the dorm comes with responsibilities like making your bed and keeping emotions in check. “It’s a correction facility used in the right manner,” Oleachea said. “...as opposed to a jail, stuck in a room, solitary confinement.” Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

A maximum-custody inmate is someone who the jail determines needs to be under closer watch and housed in a cell.

An inmate watches television in the common area of a maximum custody/special needs unit at the Thurston County Corrections Facility in Tumwater on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

An inmate is classified as special needs, Thoma said, if they’re experiencing significant mental health issues or have a developmental disability that requires a higher level of security or protection. Maximum-custody and special-needs inmates are typically housed in the same type of unit at TCCF to provide more security.

A medium-custody inmate is somebody who falls in the middle, Thoma said, and is likely to be housed in one of the dorms.

Officials say overcrowding persists while some beds sit empty in part because of limitations on how many of the beds and cells can be used. And Thoma said it’s a best practice to keep 10-15 percent of beds empty at all times.

Operations Captain George Eaton pointed out that, while this new facility has twice as much square footage as the overcrowded jail Thurston County operated prior to 2015, the space is used differently. A lot of it is in the four dormitories for minimum- and medium-custody inmates.

Thoma said the former jail administration made that design decision based on work with the National Institute of Corrections, site visits to other facilities, and population projections. He also said the direct-supervision dormitories are less expensive and staff-intensive to manage than cells.

new jail floor plan.png
Courtesy Thurston County

Successes and limitations of that design

On the one hand, officials say more direct supervision in the open dorms has been a big win since moving to the new jail, and it is drastically bringing down the amount of inmate-on-inmate violence.

In the old jail, most of the housing was indirectly supervised by corrections staff through glass. Inmates would be left unsupervised for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, according to officials. Under that system, Thoma said 88 incidents of inmate-on-inmate assault were reported in 2014. And those are just the incidents staff were aware of.

The new facility’s design puts one corrections officer at a time directly supervising a dorm with as many as 68 minimum- and medium-custody inmates, 24 hours a day. Under that system, Thoma said there were 42 assaults in 2016 — a reduction of more than 50 percent.

The shift from mostly indirect to mostly direct supervision was a big change for staff, Capt. Eaton said.

“Change is always difficult — they were leery about coming to this type of supervision,” Eaton said. “I’d like to emphasize, again, they’ve done a great job. They’ve adapted very well, and we’ve been very pleased.”

The female dorm, though, often has empty beds that can’t be used for other populations. At times, the population there has climbed into the mid-50s, Capt. Eaton told The Olympian, but on Tuesday night, for instance, officials said there were 38 empty beds.

“We do not have enough females to fill up that dorm,” Support Services Captain Jim Downing told The Olympian. “So now you have all these beds that show on our daily count. … We can’t put males in there, obviously, and we don’t control the female population.”

The three male dorms, Thoma said, are often at or near capacity. When there are no beds, minimum- and medium-custody inmates may be transferred to Lewis County or — as a last resort, Thoma says — to Yakima County.

“We try to avoid sending people to Yakima unless we absolutely need to because of the distance,” Thoma said. “With an open case, we don’t want them all the way in Yakima, and it’s a disconnect for family members.”

An average of about 17 Thurston County inmates per day have been in contract housing in another county so far this year, Thoma said. That’s fewer inmates per day than the last three years, but Thoma said availability at other jails could change at any point and leave them with no options.

“We’re relying on the availability of others,” Thoma said.

The Board of County Commissioners just renewed Thurston’s contract with Lewis County, which included a rate increase from $63.39 to $66.56 per night per inmate. According to the Board of County Commissioners agenda item summary, that change will result in a predicted cost increase of “a little over $15,000 per year.”

With the new design that emphasizes direct supervision, the new jail actually has 13 fewer cells than the old one, according to Eaton. It has five fewer housing units. So, he explained, it has less room for “problematic inmates.”

As in 2017, corrections officials point to the maximum-custody population as the main pain point causing overcrowding, even though that population also appears to be trending down: An average of almost 79 per inmates were maximum-custody or special-needs in 2014. Since then, it peaked at about 130 per day in 2017, and dropped to just over 98 per day so far this year.

Thoma said he thinks the county is “doing a really good job of moving people through the system” — getting people out of custody while their cases are pending, for example. But he says those numbers don’t give a full picture of the situation.

“The double-edged sword is that what we have in custody are probably your highest level of risk and your highest-need population,” Thoma said.

Because of that population’s needs, officials say, double-bunk cells often house just one inmate each, leaving the second beds in those cells empty.

As Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza put it, maximum-custody men sometimes don’t “make very good roommates.”

On Thursday, 24 double-bunk cells in the maximum-custody and special-needs areas for men were housing one inmate each, corrections officials said. Three maximum-custody inmates were housed that night in temporary holding cells in the intake area — cells without permanent beds.

Thoma says the most displaced population, though, is maximum-custody and special-needs women.

‘It’s not a secret’

Maximum-custody and special-needs females are still being housed in the transfer area as they were in 2017 — an area not meant for long-term stays. Jail officials confirmed the women don’t get the time outdoors other inmates get, and there aren’t any showers in that area of the jail.

The jail has determined these women can’t be housed in the often half-full female dorm because of behavioral issues, the level of their alleged crime, or other factors.

Kyra Matson, who’s now living in the female dorm, told The Olympian she was housed in the intake area for 41 days this year, and that almost nothing had changed since she was there in 2016.

She described 24-hour lockdown in her cell and days without showers because staff wasn’t available to provide an escort. She alluded to the irony of what she sees as the county breaking rules in its treatment of inmates.

“In our handbook, it states all these things that are being broken,” Matson said. “We’re punished for rules we break ... See what I mean?”

Chief Thoma said the jail has been working with Disability Rights Washington (DRW) and other advocacy groups to alleviate the situation, and with the county and engineers to try to design an area where the maximum-custody and special-needs female inmates can at least step outside.

“We’ve made every attempt to mitigate the impacts and to treat those particular defendants like anybody else, but the reality is they’re still held in an area that was never designed for long-term housing,” Thoma said. “It’s not a secret.”

Kimberly Mosolf is the director of the Treatment Facilities Program at DRW, and was previously part of its Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities, or AVID, program in 2017. She said DRW toured jails around the state in 2016, then focused in on several jails, including Thurston’s, in 2017.

Mosolf said DRW had a “fair amount of correspondence” with the county and met with the Board of County Commissioners regarding the organization’s serious concerns with the jail.

“Both Chief Thoma and the sheriff were open to working with us, which we appreciated,” Mosolf said. “They appreciated that there was a problem.”

Mosolf said DRW emphasized to the county at the time that building jail space wasn’t the solution in itself, and that it should emphasize diversion efforts and “think more strategically about who they were incarcerating.”

“But we understood they were building the flex unit as part of a multi-pronged approach to the problem,” Mosolf said. She said she and DRW only found out that the unit was not actively being built within the last several months.

If the expansion doesn’t happen, Sheriff Snaza worries about possible legal action.

“My fear is that I’ll end up eventually getting sued,” Snaza said. “And getting sued over something that we’re telling the county commissioners how important it is. What’s a life worth? And that’s how I look at it.”

When asked about the potential for legal action, Mosolf said it should be a concern to the county and to anyone in the community.

“Although it’s not the fault of the jail that society is increasingly turning them into the treatment facilities of last resort, counties and jail(s) are still constitutionally required to provide adequate care and conditions for people,” Mosolf wrote in an email.

“Any facility that is facing overcrowding or serious problems in the conditions of confinement should be worried about the safety of inmates and the related liabilities. And any community member should just plain be worried about our family, friends, and neighbors who are held in overcrowded jails.”

The county regroups

The county’s original plan was that the jail would be built in phases, Thoma said. Phase II would have begun immediately and added another maximum-custody/special-needs unit and two more dormitories.

But the recession hit, and Phase II never happened.

“Phase II was talked about — we got a project manager, got work ups,” Sheriff Snaza said. “It was supposed to be moving forward. I don’t have control over that, the county commissioners have control over that. We were led to believe they were working on it, and they were going to make that happen.”

Since moving in, Thoma said it’s clear there isn’t a need for more dormitory space. Instead, they’re working on conceptual designs for a “flex” unit.

Officials envision a unit that includes maximum-custody/special-needs housing for females, enough space to bring inmates back from contract housing, and more cells that serve as step-up or step-down housing for people who are transitioning between a dorm and a maximum-custody cell.

The unit’s flexibility would more adequately mirror the fluid needs of the population it serves.

“The reality is: Jails typically grow,” Thoma said. “The need for beds will grow. And I think the county has done an excellent job, over the years, of trying to find innovative programs to mitigate that growth. But I don’t think you can stop it entirely, and I’m not sure you can actually go backwards.”

The plan for the jail expansion as of 2017 was a $13 million project funded by the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET). County Manager Ramiro Chavez told The Olympian the $13 million from the REET is still part of the financial plan.

“That’s the source of how to fund, if we move forward with this project,” Chavez said.

When asked why there’s been a delay in progress, Chavez said “delays have occurred related to the project management.”

The project manager hired to oversee the project, Brady Knowles, left his post earlier this year and the county is looking for a new project manager, according to Chavez. Another of the county’s project managers is serving in the role in the interim.

Chavez said the county isn’t “starting over,” but he asked the county to “hit the pause button” and borrow the interim manager to “help get our hands around the project itself” and “set realistic expectations for the commissioners and the public.”

Sheriff Snaza said he’s concerned that the project will cost more money now than it would have before.

“We really are always trying to do the right thing,” Snaza said. “And doing the right thing does cost money.”

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, Chavez said there will be a public meeting where stakeholders will discuss the scope of the project, the funding involved, and the timeline moving forward.

As with any other decision in front of the board, Chavez said, commissioners will ultimately decide whether to proceed, proceed with deviations from the original plan, or do nothing at all. But he said he’ll encourage the commissioners not to make the decision Wednesday.

Sheriff Snaza said he hopes the county will realize the facility’s needs looking into the future, so that space is not a continuing worry.

“In all honesty, going through this is a pain in the ass,” Snaza said. “I’m having to go in front saying what I need. And whether they believe in what I’m saying is truthful and honest and accurate ... But that’s our job. I’m not asking for something I don’t need, I’m asking for something that I need and is for the safety of people who are incarcerated.”

Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.