The Legislature got it right when it rejected closing the main institution at the Washington State Penitentiary and opted to not tinker with the staffing level at the prison.
Instead, lawmakers wisely took a more forward-thinking approach and approved funding to expand and modernize the penitentiary. The capital budget package approved recently contains $6.8 million to design new medium-security and close-custody facilities at the prison and expand the West Complex kitchen facilities.
Previously, lawmakers had taken a shortsighted view. Legislators allowed politics and parochial interests to shape the future for the Department of Corrections.
A year ago prison-population projections showed a slight decline in the statewide inmate population for the next five years. State officials, desperate to save a few dollars in the midst of the nation's financial meltdown, wanted to reduce the number of prison beds - and staff to watch those inmates. Some estimated it would save $12 million over the next two years.
But in looking into those projections it became clear the savings weren't a given. Prison populations go up and down. Washington's population is expected to go up soon and when that occurs, more beds will be needed.
If the old main institution at the penitentiary were shut down, it couldn't have been reopened without expensive upgrades to meet new standards.
Legislators opted to reduce the prison populations at the McNeil Island Corrections Center and Larch Corrections Center near Vancouver and close the smaller Ahtanum View Corrections Center in Yakima and the Pine Lodge Corrections Center for women near Spokane.
As a community that benefits from prison jobs, we understand the concerns of downsizing or closing a corrections facility. However, given the choices, targeting these facilities seems prudent.
The proposed new additions in Walla Walla should allow for a smooth transition when the main institution is eventually closed. This type of long-term planning makes sense.
But gaining approval - and funding - to move forward with construction will be a challenge.
"We're in a long haul to get the real results," said Dave Mastin, a former state representative hired by the Port of Walla Walla to lobby on this community's behalf.
Walla Walla has the staffing experience and infrastructure in place to better accommodate new and expanded prison facilities. It's wise to build on what's working well.