Safety concerns over DOC cuts are valid

Yet, DOC officials have no choice but to slash spending. The state simply does not have the money to fund current programs.


The cuts now taking place in state government, although necessary given tax revenue shortfall, will be difficult to absorb.

And those cuts will be particularly hard for the Department of Corrections where the safety of staff and inmates must be the top priority.

Yet, Department of Corrections officials -- following Gov. Chris Gregoire's orders -- have trimmed $50 million from the DOC's budget.

The most recent revenue forecast was bleak, calling for more than $500 million in cuts throughout state government. This comes on top of previous reductions. Since this recession started the amount of revenue collected has been 16.5 percent -- $5.6 billion -- less than originally predicted. The result has been cuts, cuts and more cuts.

The DOC has made cuts, which have resulted in the loss of jobs. Over the past three years, spending cuts have eliminated 1,200 positions across the state prison system, including 116 jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary.

About 300 more jobs will be lost statewide. While the DOC hasn't put a number of penitentiary job losses that will occur as a result of the $50 million spending reduction, local officials estimate 24 jobs could be on the chopping block in Walla Walla.

These cuts are part of an overall plan that will result in shutting down the 240-bed Larch Corrections Center in Clark County.

The plan announced by Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail also calls for locking down major prisons once a month and eliminating emergency response managers at major prisons and captains at minimum-security prisons. The list goes on and on.

The cuts on top of cuts have created safety concerns for employees.

Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 60 percent of DOC employees, said the cuts compromise safety.

Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, agrees with Thompson's safety concerns -- inside and outside of prisons.

"I think we have gone past the maximum of what DOC can do," Pierce said. "... We're way past doing more with less, and the citizens of this state need to realize that because of the budget cuts we'll be doing less with less."

While we share the safety concerns, we also understand Vail and DOC officials were forced to take drastic action. The state simply does not have the money to fund everything.

Still, it's clear the elimination of staff and programs will increase the risk of violence and injury. The focus of the remaining staff has to be on minimizing risks. Great strides have been made in making prisons safer. We can't return to the violence of the past.

The sooner these jobs and programs can be restored the better. When the economy turns around and tax collections increase the DOC must be at the top of the list to have its jobs and programs restored.

The safety concerns are very real and very serious.


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