Washington state prisons address budget shortfall

Local officials estimate 24 jobs could be on the chopping block at the Walla Walla prison.

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One state correctional facility will close its doors in February and the rest will lock down cells one day each month as part of a new strategy to cleave more than $50 million from the state prisons budget.

Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said in an announcement Friday the 240-inmate Larch Corrections Center in Clark County will close Feb. 1.

In addition, major prisons will have one-day lockdowns each month. During those times inmates will remain in their cells. They will not be allowed to work, have visitors or attend education or substance-abuse programs those days, Vail said.

The changes, as well as cuts to jobs and programs, will be effective immediately. They continue three years of spending cuts that have eliminated 1,200 positions across the prison system, including 116 jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary. But more are likely on the way, Vail said.

"This is only a portion of the cuts we'll make, but it illustrates the breadth and depth of what we will need to do to reduce spending," he said in a prepared statement. "There will be more layoffs, both at headquarters and in the field, and programs that have been proven to reduce the likelihood that offenders will return to prison will be eliminated or significantly reduced. None of these are good options, but they're the only options we have left."

Specific impacts at the Washington State Penitentiary were not outlined in Vail's announcement. However, local officials estimate 24 jobs could be on the chopping block at the Walla Walla prison. That figure is based on across-the-board cuts announced to state agencies by Gov. Chris Gregoire, said Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz.

He said an unknown number of positions are also expected to be eliminated because of cuts to inmate education programs provided through the community college. Walla Walla Community College President Steve VanAusdle could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Kuntz said the changes illustrate "a new budget reality" for prisons across the state. Though Walla Walla lost 116 jobs in the 2007-2009 biennium - more than any other facility in the state - this round of cuts at last appears more equitable, Kuntz said.

He said a local Task Force set up last year to help save jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary will likely reconvene in November to determine a legislative strategy. As far as staving off the latest round of cuts, there may be little that can be done, he said.

"I think the Task Force understands the state budget is literally in crisis," Kuntz said. "As long as the cuts are fair and evenly distributed through facilities across the state, there's not much for us to argue."

There is a concern, however, that the budget problems may interfere with new construction plans at the Washington State Penitentiary.

During the last legislative session, the state appropriated $6.4 million for the design of new units at the penitentiary, Kuntz said. The new units would replace the penitentiary's main institution with a more efficient, modern facility.

But the construction cost is estimated at $44 million, Kuntz said. If there's no legislative capital to fund construction, he worries there will be no place to send inmates - and, in turn, employees - when the main institution is eventually closed.

"The fundamental concern is there's not enough state money to build the new units, and at some point in time DOC officials say we have to close the old main institution of the penitentiary," he said.

The latest budget cuts didn't sit well with representatives from Teamsters Local 117, the union that represents Department of Corrections employees and has been in negotiations with the state over labor agreements.

Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer for the union, said the cuts would have a "chilling impact" on the safety of those who work in the state's prisons.

"These reductions, along with the state's proposals in bargaining, are simply unacceptable," Thompson said in an announcement Friday. "Our members work side-by-side with some of society's most dangerous criminals. We will not stand idly by and allow the state to dismantle protections that help keep them safe."

She said the union intends to raise public awareness of the "adverse impacts" of the reductions. A "Day of Action" is planned for Dec. 9 at the capital in Olympia. The union's 6,000-plus members will be mobilized to fight the cuts, she said.

But Vail said in his announcement that the sweeping and most creative cuts yet don't fully meet the Office of Financial Management's request to reduce nearly $53 million. According to a piece in The Seattle Times, the changes implemented total $51.3 million.

"I told OFM this week that we will have to rely on the help of the Legislature to fully meet the directed budget reductions to ensure maximum protection of our employees and communities," Vail said in his announcement.

DOC plans

The Department of Corrections plans to reduce more than $50 million in spending with a new round of cutbacks announced Friday. To reduce spending, the DOC plans to:

  • Initiate one-day lockdowns at major prisons each month. During that time, offenders will remain in their cells except during meals.
  • Close the Larch Corrections Center, a minimum-security prison in Clark County, on Feb. 1.
  • No longer have emergency response managers at major prisons or captains at minimum-security prisons.
  • Nearly eliminate staff counselor and occupational nurse consultant programs.
  • Reduce drug treatment and education programs at a number of prisons.
  • No longer assign correctional officers to kitchens at medium-security prisons.
  • Keep as many open positions vacant as possible.
  • Eliminate the position of a deputy secretary, which has overseen prisons, community corrections and health services.

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