Task force seeks prison answers

State officials and consultants were on hand for a Q&A. The upshot: The penitentiary's main institution is on a short list for closure.

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WALLA WALLA -- Possible job cuts at the Washington State Penitentiary were the topic of a lively question-and-answer session Wednesday.

Members of a community task force met with state officials and consultants to go over the mechanics of a study now underway to cut 1,580 beds in the state's prison system. Ordered by state legislators during their last session, the study by the state Office of Financial Management is due out Nov. 1.

Led by Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz, local officials sought answers to a range of questions regarding how the firm is doing the study, Christopher Murray & Associates, will compile its data, assess facilities and factor in other issues such as cuts in jobs and beds that have already been made at the prison as well as the economic impact of layoffs to the local economy.

Along with Christopher Murray and fellow consultant Kathy Gookin, state officials at the meeting included Richard Morgan, director of prisons; Steve Sinclair, penitentiary superintendent; Carole Holland, senior budget assistant to the governor and Adam Aaseby, budget assistant to the governor.

In opening remarks, Murray outlined the tasks his firm is tackling in compiling the "fast-paced study" which is intended to provide legislators and DOC officials with a plan to eliminate not only the DOC beds but another 485 juvenile and adult beds maintained by the state Department of Social and Health Services.

The prison's main institution is on the "short list" of DOC facilities being looked at, Murray said. That section now houses medium-security inmates, kitchen and laundry facilities that serve the entire institution and correctional industries that provide vocational training.

While the study will examine costs of closing or consolidating facilities, it will also identify possible alternative uses, Murray said. The changes may actually mean some institutions could grow as others shrink.

"Some facilities will get larger due to dislocation of inmates, so part of our analysis...is looking at both sides of the equation," he said.

During the discussion, Kuntz and other officials said they are very concerned that Walla Walla County with its smaller population would suffer disproportionately to other communities if jobs are lost at the penitentiary.

"It's much harder to recover jobs here than in larger communities," said Paul Gerola, the Port's economic development director.

Kuntz asked Morgan which other DOC facilities have given up jobs and beds, pointing out that the penitentiary has already lost 138 positions and 354 beds in an earlier round of cutbacks.

"We realize at the end of the day there's going to be a study and we want it on the records that we've already made sacrifices for the good of the order," Kuntz said.

During the discussion, Morgan recapped how the corrections department found itself caught in a "perfect storm" composed of a shortfall of inmates coming into the prison system combined with the recession, which caused a shortfall of operating funds. After years of building, he said, "we've found ourselves in a situation where we've had to get smaller."

Forecasts that called for "very steep caseload increases" that led to expansions at the penitentiary and Coyote Ridge Corrections Center remained in line with actual numbers up to last year, Morgan said. "Then, like the economy, it changed."

Kuntz also asked Morgan whether corrections officials had a plan in place for closing facilities during the last legislative session.

"Is there a DOC document that identifies what the best thinking was during the Legislature?" Kuntz said. "If so, we would like to make a public request what the DOC's specific closure list was."

Along with Kuntz, other task force members at Thursday's meeting included state Reps. Maureen Walsh and Laura Grant, Walla Walla Community College President Steve VanAusdle, City of College Place Administrator Pat Reay, Port of Walla Walla Commissioners Paul Schneidmiller and Fred Bennett, prison employees and others.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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