Proposal to cut penitentiary appears political

It is also shortsighted. It makes more sense to rent out any extra prison space as Sen. Mike Hewitt suggests.

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So, closure of the Washington State Penitentiary's main institution is at the top of the list of actions that should be taken to reduce the size of the state's prison system.

Whoo! Whoo!

Yep, we hear a political railroad job coming.

Frankly, there is no other reasonable explanation for shutting down that section of the penitentiary, which now houses medium custody inmates. It's shortsighted and foolish.

We understand that the efforts to reduce the statewide inmate population are working and therefore the need for prison space has been reduced.

And if officials at the Department of Corrections -- the experts we hire to run our prison system -- were making the decision on what actions to take, shutting down the main institution here wouldn't be considered. In fact, it wasn't.

The penitentiary was not on a list of proposed cutbacks drafted by the DOC when the Legislature was in session. But that plan was scuttled by lawmakers who feared jobs would be lost in their districts. The Legislature put in its place a $500,000 study on how to cut 1,580 beds from the state's entire prison system.

In addition to closing the main institution at the penitentiary, the report calls for closing a facility in Yakima and half of a prison in Clark County.

The caveat to the proposed cuts at the penitentiary is that the state must spend $41 million to build a medium-security unit and a close-custody unit at the penitentiary and expand the kitchen in the new west complex to compensate for closure of the main institution's kitchen facilities.

But, the study said, if the $41 million isn't available then downsizing McNeil Island is recommend.

Frankly, that's where the discussion should have focused in the first place. However, Puget Sound-area area legislators have the political juice necessary to preserve the McNeil Island facility and jobs.

Allowing politics to drive this type of decision is generally a disaster.

Secondly, the Legislature is taking the short view on this issue.

While the inmate population might be down right now, the numbers are going to go up. The state's population continues to rise and crime -- and criminals -- will rise with it.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, clearly understands this. Instead of taking a yo-yo approach -- closing prisons, opening prisons, closing prisons -- Hewitt suggests renting excess prison beds to states with an overcrowding problem.

Great idea. Washington state has been sending its excess prisoners out of state for years, now it's time to turn the tables.

This would generate revenue for the state, keep folks employed in Walla Walla and elsewhere and save on startup costs when a new prison has to be opened because the inmate population increases.

But right now this political railroad job has to be stopped.

Comments on the study are being accepted through Wednesday at the Web site ofm.wa.gov

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