A deal shaping up between the Legislature’s weary budget negotiators would keep a prison on McNeil Island – for now – but at a fraction of its current size.
Democratic House and Senate negotiators say they have agreed on a concept that eventually would close the island prison. But for now, it would shrink to 256 inmates from the 1,200 housed there now.
No date would be set for the closure, but the state would start planning to build a new prison elsewhere, Sen. Jim Hargrove and Rep. Mark Ericks said.
Nothing is final. Ericks and other House negotiators were still reviewing details Friday, and dissent among the rank and file, notably from Pierce County lawmakers, could still stymie the agreement over worries about state workers.
Rep. Tami Green, a Democrat whose district includes the prison, said the loss of jobs from such a dramatic downsizing would “burden” Pierce County.
Elsewhere, Larch Corrections Center in Clark County would be cut to half its size under the deal. Ericks said Pine Lodge Corrections Center would close, but that couldn’t be confirmed in the Senate, which has protected the women’s prison near Spokane. And Hargrove said there is no deal yet on a juvenile lockup in Grand Mound that is threatened, Maple Lane School.
McNeil Island Corrections Center would become a minimum-security facility.
Dropping its population to 256 is a middle ground between the House’s proposal to keep the island prison open with 512 inmates, and the budgets the Senate voted for that would close McNeil altogether and start work on a new prison somewhere in Western Washington.
House negotiators offered up the compromise.
“Basically, we agreed with that,” said Hargrove, a Hoquiam Democrat who has pushed to shutter the facility. “You can’t go from 1,200 to zero overnight, so this is a step down.”
The prison costs a comparatively higher $50 million a year to run because of its separation from the mainland. To achieve such a large savings in the first year of closing it, though, would require offsetting shutdown costs with a complicated shifting of funds that has its doubters.
Then there is the island’s Special Commitment Center, housing sex offenders who are done serving time but deemed too dangerous to release. The center would need more money to keep ferries and utilities running without the benefit of cheap inmate labor, and those details have yet to be ironed out.
Green questioned the idea of replacing McNeil, no matter how vague the timeline.
Among House members, she said: “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of ‘hip, hip, hooray’ for building a new prison.”
Ericks said he was satisfied with the idea of replacing the facility at a yet-to-be-determined point in the future. A certain date, he said, would be unacceptable because it would require precise timing in finding a place for a new prison and building it before a predicted increase in inmate population.
“There’s so many things that could go wrong with a new prison,” the Bothell Democrat said, “from siting, to construction estimates.”
McNeil Island prison opened in 1875. The facility has a backload of needed maintenance. Hargrove says it’s time to modernize the prison system.
“If we had no budget deficit,” he said, “we probably would avoid making these hard decisions.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826