Top priority in prison cuts must be safety

The worst case has grown worse for Walla Walla, which means 173 jobs could be lost if the Legislature cuts the Corrections budget by 5 to 10 percent.

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If 173 jobs are lost at the Washington State Penitentiary later this year as is being considered under budget-cutting plans, it will be very difficult for those out of work and a blow to the local economy.

But the biggest concern must be the safety of the correctional officers and other prison employees who will remain on the job.

A prison does not run itself. It takes a well-trained staff with complete control of the institution to maintain order.

Department of Corrections officials certainly understand this. They appear to have made every effort to make on-the-job safety the top priority as they have trimmed the budget as the state has grappled with revenue projections that were lower than anticipated.

They have, all things considered, done a good job making the tough cuts.

Bernard Warner, the Department of Corrections chief, has previously said that his agency could not tolerate further cuts.

Yet, when the most recent state revenue projections were released it became clear that every corner of state government would see a further reduction in funding. The latest tax-collection forecast indicates the state will be $1.4 billion short of what was predicted.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said last week she wants lawmakers to trim $2 billion from the budget when they come to Olympia at the end of November for a special legislative session. She wants the additional $600,000 in cuts to replenish the depleted reserve fund.

Even before the latest economic forecast was released, it was clear the economy was sputtering.

Weeks ago the governor ordered all state agencies to offer plans for budget cuts of 5 percent and 10 percent.

Warner was in Walla Walla visiting the penitentiary just after this request, and he was hoping the loss of jobs at the penitentiary would be no more than 40, which is the number of slots left open by attrition.

However, it appears the worst case has grown worse for Walla Walla. The latest plan now calls for eliminating 173 jobs.

The budget scenarios now being proposed call for converting part of the old main institution, which is now a medium-security unit, into a minimum security unit. Staffing a minimum-security unit requires fewer employees.

This plan is far from final. And even if the jobs are lost, it could be temporary as two new medium security units are being built here at a cost of $42 million.

Ultimately, we understand that $2 billion in state spending has to occur. However, we continue to believe that the Department of Corrections has already seen significant staffing reductions through budget cuts. Any further cutting will be difficult to tolerate. A 10 percent cut could make an already dangerous job inside the penitentiary far riskier.

Safety for prison staff members, as well as inmates under state care, cannot be ignored as lawmakers decide what areas of the state budget will be cut further.

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