Column: Prison remains economic asset

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At one time, Walla Walla was known as a prison town. Not so much today as Walla Walla’s growing prominence for its wine industry and vibrant downtown has surpassed our prison town image.

This transformation has been positive and has resulted in some terrific regional and national press for the Walla Walla Valley. Recently, Wine Enthusiast magazine named Walla Walla one of the world’s 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations.

Despite the reduced visibility, the Washington State Penitentiary remains a vital economic contributor to the Walla Walla Valley. The penitentiary is the second-largest employer in the Walla Walla Valley with 954 jobs. The annual payroll is $61.7 million.

The vast majority of employees live in the Walla Walla Valley and local businesses benefit from these payroll dollars circulating in our community. The starting salary of a correctional officer is $33,108 per year plus benefits.

In addition to payroll, the penitentiary spends $16.5 million annually in purchasing services such as medical, utilities and educational services from Walla Walla Community College.

Of equal importance to the economic value of the penitentiary is the outstanding job our correctional officers, support staff and administrators do in managing the most difficult prison population in the state of Washington.

Over 62 percent of the inmate population at the penitentiary has been convicted of a violent crime. The penitentiary is home to 443 offenders convicted of murder, 28 offenders convicted of manslaughter, 643 offenders convicted of assault, 283 convicted of robbery and 276 serving a sentence of life without parole.

When other correctional institutions have a difficult inmate, that inmate often gets transferred to the penitentiary as we have some of the best trained, most professional correctional officers in the Pacific Northwest.

Few of us grow up wanting to be a correctional officer. It is a tough job. There have been five penitentiary employees who lost their lives in the line of duty.

As a society, we have demanded that our most violent criminals be locked up. This necessitates having correctional officers and support staff.

For those of us who simply could not do this job, we owe our correctional officers who put their lives at risk our admiration and appreciation.

In 2009, the Port took a leadership role in starting the Washington State Penitentiary Community Task Force. The goal of the task force has been to transform the penitentiary into one of the most cost effective correctional facilities in the state.

We have been successful in securing state funding to build two new medium-security units and re-purposing of the Old Main Institution.

It has not been easy. State Sen. Mike Hewitt and State Reps. Maureen Walsh and Terry Nealey have been very helpful.

Today, the penitentiary is one of the most cost-effective correctional facilities in the state. Subsequently, we are less vulnerable to job cuts when the state has its next downturn in funding.

As a member of this task force, I have worked closely with correctional officers, support staff and administrators at the penitentiary. What has stood out for me has been their dedication and pride in making the Washington State Penitentiary a safe place for staff and offenders.

While Walla Walla is transforming itself away from its prison town image, the economic contributions of the penitentiary and its dedicated staff remain an integral part of the Walla Walla Valley.

Mike Fredrickson is the vice president of the Port of Walla Walla Commission. He has served on the Port Commission since 2006. He is a graduate of Washington State University with a B.S. degree in agribusiness. Fredrickson is a certified general real estate appraiser holding an MAI designation and is co-owner of Associated Appraisers in Walla Walla.

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