Washington State Penitentiary task force eyes next move

Funding for new facilities 'is not a done deal,' a lobbyist says.


WALLA WALLA -- Washington State Penitentiary won major gains in this year's state budget battle, but more work lies ahead members of a task force agreed this week.

Although more staff cuts were avoided and $6.8 million was approved to design new facilities, turning those plans into reality is far from assured, said Dave Mastin, hired as a lobbyist by the Port of Walla Walla.

Obtaining the estimated $44 million in construction funds "is not a done deal," Mastin said. The design funds are "a huge push toward getting construction funding," he said. "But there's a $5 billion deficit predicted."

Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz, who has co-chaired the task force with Walla Walla Community College President Steve VanAusdle, outlined what he saw as the "going forward strategy" during Monday's meeting.

Elements include getting the design done to lock in an estimate of actual construction costs, finding what the state Department of Corrections projections are for the prison population and, finally, learning what the capital budget will be next year, Kuntz said.

VanAusdle said another job for the task force is to find where the penitentiary stands in regards to the DOC's long-range plans. "We need to understand the DOC's capital budget and where we stand in the DOC's priorities," he said.

Composed of local officials and legislators, the task force was formed last July after the Legislature ordered a feasibility study to find ways to close facilities and reduce 1,580 beds in facilities run by the DOC. The study also was to find ways to reduce beds in facilities run by the state Department of Social and Health Services.

The major concern was that the study called for closure of the prison's old main institution, which houses medium security inmates, kitchen facilities and other services. The closure would result in the loss of 300 jobs, a major blow the area's economy.

During the summer, the task force met with corrections officials and members of the firm hired to do the study, Christopher Murray & Associates, to argue that the prison had already absorbed it's share of cuts and to highlight the value of the institution.

When legislators convened in January, Mastin was retained to lobby for the solution called for in the study, which was to close the main institution but replace it with new medium-security and close-custody facilities and expand the new West Complex kitchen facilities to compensate for loss of the old kitchen complex.

Mastin said the effort was aided by supporting the budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, which also called for no immediate shutdown of the main institution and provided design money for new facilities. Another factor was the community's attitude for compromise, not confrontation.

"We just had a really good group and we were really reasonable, and there were some things that went our way," Mastin said.

In the short term, Kuntz said task force members should set up a meeting with Richard Morgan, DOC director of prisons and former WSP superintendent, to get his thoughts about the recent legislative session, population projections and how the penitentiary fits in DOC's future plans.

The community should also emphasize its support of the penitentiary and its staff, VanAusdle noted.

"We just want to be a community partner for the Department of Corrections," he said.

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

What's Being Designed

The $6.8 million approved by the state Legislature will fund design of a 454-bed addition to the Washington State Penitentiary.

The project includes a 198-bed close-custody unit, a 256-bed medium-custody unit and a 4,800 square-foot addition to the West Complex kitchen.

The goal is to have the project ready to bid by the summer of 2011.

Source: Daily Journal of Commerce


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