Politics & Government

One county jail offers relief for state prison overcrowding

Inmates in state prisons have been sleeping on the floor. Meanwhile, thousands of jail cells and even whole jails sit empty.

A match made in heaven? Not necessarily, state officials say. Jails run by local governments and prisons run by the state are different animals, they insist.

Be that as it may, the state is slowly moving toward greater use of jail beds – so far mainly in just one place, Yakima.

Shipping female inmates to Yakima County – along with a reversal of recent increases in the number of women behind bars – has helped ease overcrowding at the women’s prison in Purdy. State Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said no one was sleeping on the floor there last week.

Next up could be male prisoners. The Department of Corrections in a report last week suggested filling an empty 288-bed jail in Yakima with drug offenders from state prisons.

A separate recent report by a state consultant found that city, county and tribal jails have more than 2,700 unused beds within their operating capacity, plus nearly 2,700 more that are not in use because of a lack of funding.

The Department of Corrections, meanwhile, is running about 300 inmates above capacity and expects that shortfall to grow to more than 1,300 by 2024 if nothing is done.

Lawmakers closed several prisons in the course of recession-era budget cuts, and they are reluctant to act on a Corrections request to start designing a new prison at the former Maple Lane juvenile lockup in Grand Mound that could cost $195 million or more.

The state needs medium-security space for long-term stays of more than a year, with room for programs that encourage good behavior and rehabilitation. Jails, designed to hold people for shorter stays, are less likely to have that kind of dedicated space and the staff to run the programs, according to the consultant’s study.

“While you have a couple thousand empty jail beds, it’s not, to me, just a simple solution of taking the prison population and shifting them,” Warner said. “I think we want to continue working with counties and seeing what strategies might be there, and Yakima could be an example of that, but in general I don’t think that is the solution to the prison population challenges over the years.”

The consultant, Seattle-based BERK, did suggest jails might offer opportunities for “partial confinement,” such as work-release inmates who return to their cells at night.

Local budgets are stretched by jails that were overbuilt or that can’t be used for other reasons.

Thurston County’s 352-bed jail has sat mothballed since it was built in 2010 for $45 million.

Sheriff John Snaza and the county commission have been at odds over whether the jail in Tumwater has enough funding to operate. In the meantime, the existing 408-bed jail is overcapacity at an average of more than 450 inmates.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, asked Warner during a presentation to lawmakers last week if the state has considered using the Thurston facility. Warner said he’s talked to Thurston County’s sheriff about it but noted that the county’s use of the building is “in flux.”

The Pierce County Jail also could house hundreds of inmates on top of its current average population of moer than 1,100. One reason for vacancies in Pierce is that Tacoma, seeking lower prices, started sending low-level offenders to Fife instead of the county.

Some of Tacoma’s inmates end up in Yakima via Fife.

Yakima County has been first hurt, and then helped, by the state’s bidding war for inmates.

Some King County cities stopped sending inmates to Yakima County after they found a better deal closer to home. The move forced Yakima County to lay off staff, reduce space and close its $33 million new jail. But since then, it has solved much of its budget woes by contracting out jail beds at low rates.

The consultant’s study said the prices Yakima County charges other jurisdictions are some of the lowest in the state at between $49 and $55 per inmate per day. Pierce County charges $92, Snohomish County $84 and King County $125, according to the study.

Lawmakers last year wrote a budget provision to contract out the housing of female prisoners for no more than $65 per inmate. Yakima and King counties were the only ones to show interest and only Yakima qualified.

“That’s significantly cheaper than what it costs us,” said Al Rose, Pierce County’s executive director of justice services.

The Legislature this year required study of housing more inmates in Yakima. That led to the Corrections finding that the jail could house those being sent back to prison after their Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative is revoked. DOSA offers treatment and supervision to nonviolent drug offenders.

About 450 inmates are in prison for failing to comply with DOSA sentences. Lawmakers would have to approve money to send them to the Yakima jail.

“If we as the state can get it at a lower price, I think that’s what the taxpayers want us to do,” said Senate budget chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond.