About four years ago the state's prison population looked to be on the decline. When the numbers were crunched, the best guess was that fewer inmates would be coming into the corrections system.
This was seen as an opportunity to cut costs. It was proposed prisons or sections of prisons would be closed. The Washington StatePenitentiary in Walla Walla was one of the institutions targeted.
We were quick to lash out at the plan. We saw it as being shortsighted as it would be more expensive to reopen prisons when the inmate population increased. In addition, we were concerned layoffs of correctional officers would create an unsafe situation inside the walls of the penitentiary.
Unfortunately, we were correct.
Today the state is faced with a prison system that can't accommodate the surge in the inmate population. The Seattle Times reported the Department of Corrections is scrambling to address overcrowding and bracing for the projected need for about 160 additional prison beds statewide this summer.
The state has already decided to double up in what were single cells at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. This provided 140 new beds and will likely make inmates more irritable.
Another solution being offered is a local one. Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said the 126-year-old section of the Washington State Penitentiary, which was closed over the past three years, could be reopened providing 250 additional beds.
The prison system is "as dense as we can make it with all of our closures and re-purposing of our facilities," Warner said. "We're running at about 102 percent of our rate of capacity, the flexibility is not there."
Now, to its credit, the state has added new, efficient sections to the Washington State Penitentiary and there will be further expansion. The prison system has cut its daily inmate cost from $102 per day to about $90.
But let's not forget that running a prison isn't like running an assembly line in a factory. It's about housing humans in safe, humane conditions while they pay their debt to society for crimes committed and, ideally, get their lives together. Prisons by the nature of those incarcerated are dangerous places.
The state, in order to reduce the inmate population, has made changes so non-violent offenders are freed early. As a result, inmates in Washington state tend to be more violent, more mentally ill, more prone to belong to a street gang, more likely to be a sex offender and highly drug addicted than inmates in other states.
Our concern with this rapid cutback in staffing is that it has put correctional officers and other staff at greater risk. Overcrowding causes tempers to flare, particularly when the summer temperatures hit 100.
The state should not have cut staffing or prison capacity to the point that lives are at greater risk. The current budget troubles will make it difficult to quickly correct the problems created.