New prison units result of community effort

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Two new medium security units at that Washington State Penitentiary — at a cost of $47.5 million — have been completed, which means the future for corrections in Walla Walla is bright. Hundreds of stable, well-paying jobs will remain in the community.

The state-of-the-art corrections facilities are clearly a result of forward thinking, and a lot of hard work, from those living in this community.

Things looked dim about five years ago when the penitentiary and a lot of jobs in the community were on the Legislature’s chopping block. The state’s prison population was predicted to shrink, at least for a couple of years, so closing sections of prisons was seen as a way to save cash.

But when the inmate population increased, and no doubt it would, prison units would have to be built or reopened. Unfortunately, given the advanced age of old prison here, which got its start in 1886, reopening it would never be cost effective. It made far more economic sense to build a new, more cost-efficient units.

Why not in Walla Walla? That’s what was asked in Olympia by a task force of locals led by Walla Walla Community College President Steve VanAusdle and Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz. And with the help of lobbyist (and former state representative) Dave Mastin, that’s what happened.

Walla Walla also had sound reasoning on its side. This Valley is the perfect location to expand prison capacity. The infrastructure to serve the needs of inmates is already in place. In addition, this community understands the requirements of a penitentiary on local services — from law enforcement to medical — and is prepared.

Going that route, however, meant jobs would be lost in the short run. That wasn’t easy.

Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, was the Senate majority leader in 2009. He used his position to promote the expansion of the prison.

Hewitt said he wasn’t able to support keeping the main institution open. Over time, he said, it would have been a waste of tax dollars and he believes he was elected to make government more efficient.

We agreed with him at that time. And now, with the construction complete, it’s come to fruition.

Right now, only one of the two new units is open. The second unit is waiting for the Legislature to approve funding to staff the new facility. It’s going to happen relatively soon. About $5 million for that use has been requested by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Getting to this point required taking a step back to move forward. Bravo to those who had the vision to make this happen.

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