Crime

New Thurston County jail still empty after five years

For four years, Thurston County’s new lockup has been empty.

The halls are still quiet, the floors pristine. The kitchen appliances are shiny and none of the beds has been slept in. The building is vacant, ready to be filled with the county’s inmates.

And yet, there are no plans to move into the facility, formally known as the Accountability and Restitution Center.

The jail likely will stay empty for many more months, County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe said, probably as long as John Snaza holds the office of sheriff.

“We’re at a stalemate right now,” Wolfe said. “An absolute stalemate. Nothing is getting done.”

The problem, she said, is that Snaza’s demands for opening the jail are impossible to meet.

Snaza is equally frustrated, saying county commissioners aren’t giving him enough money.

“Why wouldn’t I open it if I could?” Snaza asked. “Why wouldn’t I open up something that the taxpayers have been paying for for so long? It’s because they’re not giving me the funding.”

The facility can be opened only once the sheriff and the county commissioners reach an agreement. Because Snaza is the elected official in charge of the Corrections Department, the commissioners can’t force his hand.

“At this point in time, the sheriff is the elected official with management responsibility for the county’s corrections functions,” county Manager Cliff Moore said. “A move to the ARC can only come with the sheriff’s agreement.”

THE NUMBERS

Enough money has been in the county budget to move into and run the ARC since 2013, according to some county officials. That year, the county budget included a $17.48 million operating budget for the Corrections Department.

Moore, Wolfe and Commissioner Karen Valenzuela all said that should have been enough.

The department also was given $600,000 to hire additional corrections deputies. That boosted the staff from the equivalent of 103 full-time employees in 2012 to 118 now.

In addition, the county allocated $50,000 to physically move equipment and people — including transporting inmates — into the new facility.

Plus, the county is paying about $400,000 a year to keep the ARC in a “warm closure” state. That sum isn’t included in the corrections budget.

In 2014, the department’s budget was increased to $17.83 million to cover cost-of-living wage increases for staff members. The amount remains the same in the 2015 budget, Moore said.

“This funding level was based on the expectation that the move to the ARC would take place,” he noted.

But that’s not enough, Snaza said.

The department’s overall budget isn’t large enough to absorb any increased costs from the ARC, the sheriff said, adding he’d be stuck paying the extra expenses from his patrol budget, which already faces a $346,000 deficit next year because of increasing costs.

Plus, a new contract with corrections deputies will eat up an estimated $500,000 for 2 percent cost-of-living raises, higher medical benefits and increased 48 hours of leave time, he said. But that funding wasn’t added into the 2015 budget.

Snaza said the leave time could be deceptively costly because deputies will be needed on overtime to cover those shifts.

Another issue is housing inmates at other facilities. Currently, an average of 19.2 inmates are held at other facilities, including the Chelan and Lewis county jails. That cost the county about $392,000 in 2014. That number is included in the $17.83 million corrections budget.

Opening the ARC wouldn’t necessarily make that cost go away, Snaza said. In recent years, the number of female inmates has grown, as has the number of mentally ill inmates. Females can’t be placed with the male population, and the mentally ill can’t be placed with the male population, he explained. So even though the ARC will technically have enough beds for everyone, they’ll still need to use some contract housing in order to house everyone safely.

“If I have too many females, where are they going to go? If I have more mental health people, where are they going to go? We’ll need contract beds because of that,” Snaza said.

There also is the added cost of operating a jail that has been sitting empty since it was built. Snaza said he fears equipment warranties will have expired, and that there won’t be enough money in the budget for repairs.

“Who’s going to pay for the breakdowns and the equipment issues?” he asked. “This stuff has been sitting in the ARC since 2010. Some of the stuff has been there longer.”

“If you do a walk-through in the jail, everything seems to work right, but you don’t really know until you get in there.”

Bottom line: To move into the ARC, the sheriff said, the department would need another $500,000 in the corrections budget, along with a guarantee from county commissioners that they would cover any extra costs associated with running the new jail.

That promise would be impossible to make, Wolfe said.

“There’s no way of knowing what we’ll need to do with the budget in the future and I’m not binding us, or future commissioners to that promise,” she said.

Commissioner-elect Bud Blake said he’s had a hard time determining how much money the county will need to open the ARC, and whether the county has the money.

“Some say it’s going to cost $600,000 more than (than the current jail), some say it’s $1.5 million to get it up and running,” said Blake, who defeated Commission Chairwoman Karen Valenzuela in the November election. “I’ve been looking at the budgets and trying to get to the bottom of it.”

He said he’d work to open the ARC after he takes office, but declined to say more about his plans before he takes office in January.

He did say opening the ARC would require changes to the county budget, making sure county money is used in the most effective way.

“The budget is not streamlined enough to facilitate it,” he said.

Commissioner Sandra Romero said she also believes the ARC will need more funding, but that county can’t afford to add more to the corrections budget.

“We do not have the funds to increase more staff in the Sheriff’s Office,” Romero said. “I truly wish we did. Without more funding for our criminal justice system, we will continue to struggle to open the ARC and continue to spend approximately half a million dollars a year to leave it empty.”

WHY BUILD THE ARC?

The push for a new jail in Thurston County started in the 1990s when the Thurston County Jail population spiked.

In November 1999, the jail reached a record high of 551 inmates, and corrections deputies filed a grievance contending the overcrowding put employees in danger. They asked then-Sheriff Gary Edwards to cap the number of inmates at 266.

The jail now houses 316 inmates.

Another 19 inmates are held each month at other Washington jails, including the Lewis and Chelan county jails.

In addition to the cramped quarters, operating modern programs in a jail built in 1978 causes other problems, Corrections Capt. George Eaton said.

Ensuring that inmates can attend GED classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and other programs in the jail’s single classroom requires a lot of coordination, he said. Scheduling time for inmates in the jail’s recreation yard also is tricky.

Plus, moving inmates all over the facility is dangerous, Eaton said.

“The more you have inmates interact with other classifications, the more danger there is for everybody,” he said.

There also is limited room for drop-offs and deliveries, and inmates enter the jail the same way they leave — which increases the possibility of escapes, Eaton said.

Food and laundry also are issues. To keep up with the jail’s needs, inmates must do laundry 24 hours a day, and the county is constantly paying for repairs to the jail’s aging kitchen.

The worst part of the jail, Snaza said, is the portable unit that houses work-release inmates. The portable was installed in 1995 and was meant to be a temporary fix.

He said part of the problem with the jail is that the county has stopped updating it since the ARC was built.

“Our current jail is the way it is because we haven’t been spending money, and we haven’t been spending money because we were expecting to move into the ARC,” Snaza said.

To remedy the jail situation, county officials bought the former Tyson Seafood plant on Olympia’s west side for $3.8 million in 1997. The goal was to convert the building into a satellite jail holding 440 medium and minimum-security inmates.

The county budgeted $11.2 million for planning alone. The facility was scheduled to open in 2001.

Plans to convert the building ground to a halt in May 1999 when a consultant told county officials the new jail likely would be full in seven to 12 years.

County officials discussed several options, including leasing out the building. Eventually it was used as a storage facility.

The county then tried to pay for a $103 million regional justice center with a bond proposal. When voters rejected the measure in May 2004 the county opted later that year to spend $24 million on the ARC.

The cost of the facility grew to $30.9 million in August 2008, when the county awarded the bid to build a 104,000-square-foot, 352-bed facility to a Lakewood construction company.

By the end of construction two years later, the cost of the ARC was $48.14 million and the jail had 395 beds.

However, with the county strapped for cash, officials knew inmates couldn’t move into the new jail for at least another year. In the meantime, the county budgeted $400,000 per year to cover maintenance of the new building.

THE DRAWN-OUT PREPARATIONS

Lt. Sean Ball is one of four people who works in the ARC every day, ensuring that the facility — and the corrections deputies — are ready when Snaza gives the go-ahead to move in.

“We’ve got to keep it all ready to go,” Ball said. “Things need to keep moving or they’ll stop working. The doors, the machines, even the toilets. We go around and flush them all every once in a while.”

Already, the system used for video court appearances has been replaced because it was out-of-date, Ball said. In that case, the manufacturer paid for the replacement.

But in a facility like the ARC, features that were cutting-edge when the facility was designed can easily become outdated.

The ARC has two control rooms, from which employees will be able to see the entire facility. The rooms’ computers were state-of-the-art when the ARC was designed, Ball said, but newer systems have since been designed.

“It’s like your cellphone,” he said. “They’re constantly putting out newer, better things and it doesn’t take long for it to become obsolete.”

In testing and retesting the facility, the crew has run up against other problems, Ball said.

For example, they found that when the dryers were running, the door to the laundry room couldn’t be opened because of the pressure in the room. A crew had to install a new vent to remedy the problem.

And while that’s not a problem caused by the building sitting empty, it’s something they would have noticed much sooner had the county moved into the ARC right away, Ball said.

“My biggest fear is that we’re missing stuff like that,” he said. “We just don’t know what we don’t know. Until you put it under the test of a full building, you just don’t know what won’t work.”

The kitchen is another source of worry, Ball said. It’s designed to produce a lot more food — 100,000 meals a month, 10 times the number of meals the current jail’s kitchen produces in the same amount of time.

But the ARC is equipped with dozens of machines that haven’t been used.

“Until we’re trying to push out 400 meals a sitting, we don’t know for sure how it’s going to go,” Ball said.

There also will be issues with training, he said.

All of the county’s commissioned corrections deputies went through four days of training last year in preparation for moving to the ARC. Since then, the county has hired new personnel and the gap between the training date and the move-in date has grown too large, Ball said. Everyone will need to be trained again.

Training will be necessary because the ARC will operate under a “direct supervision” model, which isn’t used at the current jail, he explained.

The general population will reside in large, open dormitories, each holding 68 inmates and monitored 24 hours a day by one deputy.

“A lot of it is respect-based,” Ball said. “We don’t treat people like animals. And I think people feel safer with a deputy in the room.”

Each dormitory will be fitted with bunks, tables and book shelves. They will have an adjoining classroom, outdoor recreation area, a small medical facility and a “cool-down” room where inmates can spend time if they’re frustrated, upset or angry.

“We don’t want to send everyone to (maximum security) every time there’s a problem,” Ball said. “We would run out of room. This is a better way to deal with the problems come up.”

Inmates also will have access to a microwave and a vending machine.

The maximum security dormitory is in the center of the ARC, and inmates will be placed in small cells. It’s equipped with “crisis cells” for suicidal inmates, a small room where nurses can treat patients and a place where attorneys can safely meet with hostile inmates.

But for now, all of those plans are mothballed, all of the specially crafted rooms remain unused, while Eaton and the other corrections employees struggle to keep the old, outdated jail operational.

“Do I wish we could move into the ARC? Of course I do,” Eaton said. “But right now we’re just dependent on the politics.”

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