More prison space needed in state, Gov. Inslee says

Staff writerDecember 18, 2013 

With Washington running out of room for inmates, Gov. Jay Inslee wants to start operating new space that is ready for use at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

And just a few years after lawmakers closed three prisons, the governor also indicated he’s on board with prison officials’ call to start planning for a new one.

Money in the budget he unveiled Tuesday would pay for pre-design studies of a men’s prison in south Thurston County and a new building at the women’s prison near Gig Harbor. Some state lawmakers are skeptical.

State prison projections for the rest of the two-year budget cycle shot up in November by more than 300 inmates.

“We’ve done some good things in the state of Washington to try to find ways to look at (release of) nonviolent offenders,” Inslee told reporters Tuesday. “Even though we’ve made those efforts we still have this increased population, and there’s really no other way to deal with this that recognizes federal law.”

The 256-bed unit ready to be opened at the penitentiary in Walla Walla would cost $5 million to operate.

The state opened a new unit there of identical size in August. But lawmakers delayed opening the second unit, seeking alternative ways to tamp down prison population — and they might try to do so again.

“There’s a lot of capacity at the counties,” said Senate budget chairman Andy Hill, a Redmond Republican. “We’ll be looking to make the taxpayers’ dollars go as far as possible.”

Lawmakers told state officials to look into taking advantage of unused county jail space. So the state offered to rent space from counties at $65 a day. Three responded to the offer: Yakima, Chelan and King counties.

The state is now in talks with Yakima and King about renting county beds.

Inslee included $1.5 million in his budget proposal to pay for such an arrangement, enough to pay for 64 inmates at a time. He would earmark that space for female offenders.

Crowding in the state’s women’s prison in Purdy, the Washington Corrections Center for Women, has left many inmates sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor. Corrections officials argue the crowded conditions cause fights and attacks, and want a $16.5 million expansion.

Much more costly, at nearly $180 million, would be a new men’s prison on the site of Maple Lane School, a former youth detention center in Grand Mound.

“I have no intention of building something at Maple Lane,” said House budget chairman Ross Hunter, a Medina Democrat, “not until there’s really a case made that that’s really an important investment for the state. I’d rather invest in early learning and drive down the need for long-term prison beds.”

Even opening an existing unit at Walla Walla will be a tough sell to lawmakers. Hunter said he wants to understand the spike in prison population before making that decision.

“We’ll go look at that,” he said. “You have to do some serious convincing to get me to want to do that.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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