Prison head hopes worst of budget storm over

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— After a year filled with cutbacks and closures, the head of the state’s prison system expressed cautious optimism about the future Friday.

“We hope the worst is over in the budget crisis,” said Bernard Warner, Department of Corrections secretary.

On a visit to Walla Walla, Warner discussed the waves of changes the state’s prison system has gone through and a new approach to keep offenders on track with the terms of release from prison or jail.

To comply with reduced budgets, Warner said the DOC has absorbed more than $300 million in cuts, slashed its work force by 20 percent and closed three prisons. Despite the cuts, administrators and employees throughout the department continue to find ways to do more with less.

“I think it’s a tribute to the resiliency of our staff,” Warner said.

Locally, Washington State Penitentiary has gone through its share of changes, including switching the old Main Institution to minimum custody and preparing to add a host of new medium security beds.

But Warner said one of the latest changes has been the “re-engineering” of Community Corrections, which is responsible for tracking about 16,000 released offenders throughout the state. At the center is a new program, “Swift and Certain,” that imposes immediate jail terms of one to three days for low-level violations, such as a positive drug test or failure to report, instead of longer terms.

Ron Pedersen, Community Corrections field administrator for 11 counties including Walla Walla, said the initial “Swift and Certain” program produced a 60 percent increase in offenders reporting and a 40 percent drop in positive drug tests. After this year’s Legislature approved funding, the program is now being implemented statewide.

Along with increased compliance, Warner said the program is expected to produced significant savings by cutting back the money the state pays local county jails to incarcerate people for community custody violations. Over the next biennium the program should result in $40 million in savings, of which $10 million will be re-invested back in the program, leaving a net savings of $30 million.

Washington State Penitentiary Superintendent Steve Sinclair, who joined Warner in being interviewed, said construction of two new medium-security facilities in the prison’s West Complex is on track to open in May or June next year. When completed, the prison will be housing all levels of custody, minimum, medium, close and intensive management. That ability will cut down on the need to transfer inmates to other institutions.

Warner and Sinclair also talked about a host of other challenges facing prison officials in the future. Among these are specialized prison populations such aging offenders, who will need increased and specialized medical care, and prisoners with mental health issues.

Warner said that staff had joking said the initials “DOC” stand for “Department of Change.” He said he thought about that and decided “That’s better than being the Department of Stagnation.”

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