State Senate Democrats have proposed building a new prison somewhere in Western Washington, another sign they're serious in their call to mothball McNeil Island Corrections Center.
More space for inmates would be needed by 2016 if the island prison near Steilacoom were to close, as required in the operating budget approved by the Senate.
That’s why the Senate capital budget, a separate plan announced last week and set for its first vote today, calls for borrowing $2.6 million for site selection and planning for a proposed Westside Corrections Complex.
Closing McNeil tempts budgeters because of its $50 million-a-year cost to run, including island infrastructure like water and sewer systems and ferry access.
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“I don’t know how they could pass on $50 million savings,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove, a Hoquiam Democrat who has championed closing the 1,200-inmate facility. “This is just a great big rosy plum out there, if you will.”
The savings are projected to drop by a few million dollars after the first year, once the state starts paying off debt from transition costs and dedicating money to keep open the island’s Special Commitment Center.
The center houses sex offenders who have finished their sentences but are deemed too dangerous to set free. To maintain the center without the prison, island infrastructure would have to run without the benefit of cheap inmate labor, one reason some legislators doubt the savings projections.
Most of Pierce County’s senators and House members have signed letters to legislative leaders opposing the closure.
They cite a report by Olympia consultant Christopher Murray and Associates that recommended downsizing McNeil rather than closing it, mainly because of the commitment center.
“If another legislator wants to volunteer his or her district to house the state’s worst criminal sex offenders, then we can return McNeil Island to its original use as a federally protected seal rookery,” Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said in a statement. “Otherwise, closing the prison will end up costing the state more money in the long run because we’ll have to hire more than a hundred people to do the work now being done by inmates.”
The House took the consultant’s advice in its own budget plan, setting up a showdown over the two prison plans.
State prisons have 1,250 extra beds now, Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said, but the space will be needed in a few years, and it makes sense to use the prison already built: McNeil.
“We didn’t think about the idea of going out and building a new prison,” Vail said.
The state would borrow $443 million to build the new, 2,000-bed prison at a yet-to-be-determined site in Western Washington, according to projections.
But senators say they will save $177 million in the years between closing McNeil in June 2011 and opening new space. The new prison, plus expansion at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, would cost $50 million to run.
On paper, Vail said, savings from closing McNeil look substantial. But everything must line up perfectly for it to pan out, he said, including projected inmate populations.
Hargrove points out that it won’t be cheap simply to keep McNeil alive, citing $64 million in projected maintenance needs over the next decade.
There are more than 500 employees at the prison, drawing union opposition to the Senate’s closure plan.
Concerns about job losses in any one community led the House to spread the pain around, Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said in rolling out the House budget plan that would downsize McNeil and the Larch Corrections Center in Clark County.
Hargrove, chairman of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee, says inefficient facilities need to close to avoid laying off other state employees – or raising more taxes than already proposed.
He points out that Pierce County lawmakers have complained for years about their area being a dumping ground for more than its fair share of offenders.
“If they like employment in state institutions,” he said, “then quit talking about fair share.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826