Opening one of two new prison units is better than none

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It is unfortunate the opening of one of two new medium security units at the Washington State Penitentiary has been delayed because of state budget woes.

Opening the unit, which will eventually house 256 inmates, would have had a positive impact on efficiency and safety at the penitentiary. In addition, it would further stabilize employment at the prison, which is good for the local economy.

Nevertheless, the Legislature did what it had to do in balancing a budget that was short on tax dollars and long on spending requests. The delay in opening the new unit is a $7.7 million savings in the current two-year budget cycle.

Yes, it could be argued — and it likely was — that opening both units would result in a net savings over time. But if the money isn’t there, it isn’t there. State lawmakers had to make tough choice because, unlike Congress, the Legislature can’t borrow to spend. The revenue has to equal the expenses.

It’s similar to the reason people delay making home improvements such as upgrading the heating and cooling systems to make them more cost effective. They can’t afford it at that time. Now, to be fair, it is far more complicated with state government because of the various budgets, but the basic concept holds true.

The good news, however, is that the other new medium security unit is expected to open next month.

Chad Lewis, Department of Corrections spokesman, said the opening of a single unit will “have a positive impact” on the state’s prison system.

The new beds will give prison officials additional ability to manage prison populations so gang members are separated, prisoners are kept close to family if possible and offenders are sent to the appropriate custody level, Lewis said.

“It’s not just the number of beds, it’s the diversity of the population,” he said. “The goal is to not just put (an offender) into any bed that’s available.”

In the current economy and considering the budget constraints, getting one new unit up and running should be viewed as positive.

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