Community task force eyes prison report

The group will wait until the final report is issued to take further action.

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WALLA WALLA -- Skepticism and concern loomed over a meeting of a community task force working to prevent major job cuts at the Washington State Penitentiary.

The task force met Tuesday to address a draft report released by the state Office of Financial Management last week that outlines several recommendations for how to cut more than 1,000 beds in the Department of Corrections, including the closure of Washington State Penitentiary's historical main institution, which could cost the Valley hundreds of jobs.

Led by Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz, the task force discussed strategy for responding to the study, which is due to be finalized on Nov. 1.

The feasibility study suggests three options. The first is to downsize McNeil Island Corrections Center and to close two South Complex units of WSP, resulting in an estimated 30-50 job losses. The second option is close two cell blocks of Monroe Corrections Center; the study makes few arguments for this option. The third option and top recommendation of the study is to close the main institution at WSP, which Port officials estimate would result in 300 job cuts.

Said Kuntz of the study, "All of the options are grim."

The opening topic of the meeting was a letter written by state Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail. Vail acknowledged the study is incomplete, as it lacks analysis of the impact of the cuts on local economies. This exclusion outraged the task force, which had assembled data to show it would be harder for Walla Walla's economy to recover from the job losses than Pierce and Snohomish counties, home to McNeil Island and Monroe.

In the study, closure of the Main Institution was contingent upon $41 million in capital for the construction of a new medium security housing unit and other improvements to offset the loss of jobs. State Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, expressed doubt for the possibility of the allotment of such a large sum of money, while local attorney Dave Mastin, a former state representative, voiced outright skepticism: "I think it's a fake ... there's not $41 million to be had."

Another common concern was the study's claim that closure would save $100 million in capital over a 10-year period. Many in attendance thought this number was arbitrary, and Kuntz made it one of the group's goals to find out if the number is valid.

In regards to which option to officially endorse, the group was divided. No one wants to see the main institution close, but between the first and second options, opinions varied.

Some thought that lobbying bed cuts at Monroe is in the community's best interest, as it would mean no job cuts at WSP. Others suggested that the likelihood of this outcome is slim. Several community task force members suspected that the study's lack of support for closures at Monroe was a reflection of the rumor that Boeing, a large part of Snohomish County's economy, will soon announce layoffs.

Support for the first option was not enthusiastic, but some thought McNeil Island's downsizing was a realistic possibility and a manageable loss (30-50 jobs as opposed to 300). WSP employees were resistant to the idea of losing the two implicated units, noting that those buildings house inmates with medical problems who will be expensive to relocate. In addition, Kuntz pointed out that this option would do nothing to solve the long-term operating cost problem of the main institution. In the end, the task force decided to wait until the release of the finalized study before acting further. There was hope that the final draft will include economic analysis, which many assume will show the negative effect on Walla Walla.

Corrections officers in attendance also discussed writing letters to Vail that voice the issues they will face in effectively running the prison should the main institution close and suggestions for how they could restructure to increase efficiency of the building. Task force members are optimistic Vail will recognize the problems associated with closing the main institution, and that his recommendation will influence lawmakers.

In general, the sentiment of the group was that there is little to be done until the final report is released, and that early action could prove ineffective, if not detrimental. "We don't want to be part of the solution; we want to win," said Mastin.

Iris Alden can be reached at irisalden@wwub.com.

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