WHAT'S UP WITH THAT: Sidewalks at the prison? Seriously? Seriously!

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WALLA WALLA -- "Can someone please tell me why we needed a sidewalk next to the penitentiary. I am open to hearing any reasonable explanation."

Alert reader Sheila Hair sent that email the other day, causing me to hop in my car and drive up 13th Avenue to the Washington State Penitentiary. Sure enough, a flag crew was stopping traffic as the finishing touches were being put on a brand spankin' new sidewalk as well as curbs and gutters. The sidewalk runs in front of the penitentiary on the west side of the road.

What's up with that?

After all, walking anywhere near the penitentiary is, to put it mildly, frowned upon. That's why correctional officers -- in vehicles and on foot -- patrol the grounds looking specifically for folks who shouldn't be there. The penitentiary is a maximum-security correctional facility, not a tourist attraction.

Shari Hall, public information officer for the penitentiary, told me prison officials are not thrilled with the new sidewalk. In fact, it has created an added expense as lighting and cameras were added to help secure the area. In addition, she said, officers in towers and at other posts will keep an eye on the sidewalk.

If an officer spots people walking or loitering in front of the prison, the officer will ask if they are lost or need help. Then a request is made to leave the area.

The new sidewalk is directly in front of the east wall of the institution and the four houses on the prison grounds, one of which is the home of Superintendent Steve Sinclair. Living in the other houses are an associated superintendent, a program manager and a captain.

The concern is the sidewalk will serve as an invitation to take a stroll.

So why build it?

The state of Washington had no choice. When the state embarked on a $100 million expansion of the penitentiary in 2005, the conditional use permit required -- just like all new construction in the city of Walla Walla -- sidewalks, curbs and gutters.

Several city officials in the engineering and planning departments said providing pedestrian access is simply standard procedure. Nobody could recall any kind of fuss during the permitting process or any concerns being expressed.

Hall confirmed the state didn't protest the sidewalk requirement, probably because the expense (and security concerns) were relatively minor in relation to a $100 million project. Back in 2005 the state wasn't counting every penny trying to plug a $5.1 billion budget gap.

If the state were faced with the same requirement today, perhaps a protest would be lodged, Hall speculated.

It's a safe bet at least a few taxpayers are going to give the folks in Olympia an earful about the unnecessary sidewalks creating added expense. City Hall might get some call, too.

And, perhaps ironically, taxpayers aren't the only ones taking a soaking on this deal.

On Thursday the new curbs had to be torn out -- on the contractor's dime (actually, a lotta dimes) -- because the land survey information was flawed. The grade was incorrect, which would have resulted in drainage problems. Ouch, an expensive mistake.

But even when the proper curbs and gutters put in next to the sidewalk, the project will likely still be puzzling to the public and prison officials.

"I can't imagine people taking a casual stroll along the prison," Hall said, adding later that "it's a new way of thinking to have a sidewalk in front of a prison. It's not something we see a lot of."

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what's up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.

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