Brace for political battle to stop cuts at penitentiary

The draft report commissioned by the Legislature has put a target on the penitentiary's main institution.

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Last week's meeting of the community task force that is working to save jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary produced just one thing -- outrage.

And that outrage is justified.

The draft report outlining the options for cutting 1,000 prison beds across the state was incomplete and, perhaps, purposefully misleading.

This $500,000 study was commissioned by state lawmakers after it became apparent that jobs were going to be lost. Individual legislators didn't want to see those jobs lost in their district and, maybe more importantly, they didn't want to take the heat for those lost jobs.

The study was supposed to focus on the most cost effective way to make the cuts while taking into consideration the economic impact to the various communities.

But the draft report failed to include economic analysis of the proposed cuts. The task force had gathered data showing that it would be more difficult for Walla Walla to recover from potential job losses than other areas with prisons that have been targeted for downsizing or closure.

The report's preferred option is to shut down the penitentiary's main institution, which now houses medium security prisoners. It makes that recommendation with the caveat that $41 million be spent on renovation at the prison.

The report, however, didn't seem to consider a number of problems that would result from shutting down the main institution. Corrections officers in attendance at last week's meetings discussed sharing those concerns with the state's top prison boss, Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail.

That would be very productive if the final decision was going to be made by Vail and the DOC staff. But the Legislature will likely grab that authority from the DOC.

Lawmakers agreed to spend $500,000 on this study do buy themselves political cover. It's not working. They've wasted $500,000.

Ultimately, the task force decided not to take action until after the final report is issued Nov. 1.

It's a wise decision. Comments and information provided could be twisted by the consultants hired for the study as well as legislators trying to save jobs in their districts.

"We don't want to be part of the solution; we want to win," said Dave Mastin, a former state legislator who offered a blunt but accurate assessment of the situation at the meeting.

This is a political battle and that's the way it must be fought.

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