Prison unit eyed for reopening

Overcrowding in the state system could lead to more inmates -- and jobs -- here.

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WALLA WALLA -- Washington State Penitentiary could be tapped soon to help relieve overcrowded conditions in other state prisons.

As reported by The Seattle Times, the recent closures of three prisons and a spike in incoming inmates have some prisons bursting at the seams. Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner told The Times his staff is scrambling to address overcrowding and deal with a projected need for about 160 additional beds statewide this summer.

One possible solution, Warner said, is to reopen units at the penitentiary that were closed over the past three years. One unit under consideration is Unit 5 in the facility's Main Institution. It was closed in 2009 and accommodated 254 beds at the time, said Shari Hall, prison spokeswoman.

Hall said Monday prison officials have received no official word on the possible reopening. "We are kind of in a holding pattern right now," she said. At present, nothing is expected to happen until July.

Although a news report characterized the penitentiary units as "dilapidated," Hall said Unit 5 would not need any major repair work. When the unit was shut down, it was a "soft closure," meaning utilities are still connected and ready to be turned back on. "It would be fairly easy to reopen it," she said.

The facility would house minimum-security prisoners, which the entire Main Institution was switched to this year. The prison's West Complex houses close-custody prisoners as well as high-risk offenders, who are housed in the Intensive Management Unit.

In terms of work on the facility, Hall said "first and foremost" would be upgrading the fire alarm system to meet standards for a minimum-custody facility. Then there would be other changes, such as modifications to officers' stations and other minor repairs and maintenance.

Hall said if Unit 5 were reopened, additional staffing needs would be accommodated by calling back corrections officers who have been laid off or are on "on-call" status. The prison is also actively recruiting for on-call officers, she said.

According to The Times article, DOC officials are also discussing renovating the Maple Lane School, a recently-closed Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facility in Thurston County, so it can be used as an adult prison.

Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis told The Times the expected increase in prison population follows a revision last month in the projected number of inmates coming into the system. Inmate numbers have been boosted by Washington's three-strikes law and changes in sentencing laws for some firearms-related crimes.

The department projects a need for prison space for 900 new inmates -- an increase of nearly 6 percent -- by 2016. That's the date the department had planned to open a new prison in Western Washington, but that's been put off until 2018 at least, because of a tight budget, Lewis said.

"The early caseload forecast didn't indicate that we would need more beds by July," he said.

Overcrowding hasn't been a problem for the DOC in past years because the agency was able to keep up with the projected demand. In 2009, a minimum-security work camp in Franklin County was expanded into the state's largest prison, housing 2,500 inmates.

But facing deep budget cuts, DOC reversed its path and started closing facilities, including the 135-year old McNeil Island Corrections Center, which cost the system 1,200 inmate beds.

Officials say the picture is further complicated because changes in the prison system have created an inmate population that is more violent, more mentally ill, more prone to belong to a street gang, more likely to be a sex offender and highly drug-addicted.

"We have a very compact system with offenders who are high risk to reoffend," Warner said. The change in the population also increases pressure on guards.

"Every day I'm getting emails from staff who are concerned about safety," said Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 3,600 corrections officers.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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