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Pierce cities face diminishing options for housing inmates

Fife is the latest small city saying goodbye to the jail business as costs escalate, forcing cities to send their inmates further away from home to service their jail sentences.
Fife is the latest small city saying goodbye to the jail business as costs escalate, forcing cities to send their inmates further away from home to service their jail sentences. Getty Images

Pierce County cities will have one fewer local option for housing inmates when Fife closes its 35-bed jail at the end of the year.

Fife’s jail, viewed as a potential source of revenue for the city when it was built in 2001, is losing more than $600,000 a year.

The city built its jail 15 years ago not only to house its own prisoners, but to serve other cities in the region.

The city has contracts with 10 cities, the state Department of Corrections and Joint Base Lewis-McChord to house prisoners on an as-needed basis. But they haven’t proved enough to keep the jail full. And Fife doesn’t have enough inmates on its own to justify running a jail. On average, three to five inmates in the jail are there on Fife charges.

The jail’s problems stem partly from last year’s loss of what had been its biggest customer: the city of Tacoma. For almost three years, Fife handled Tacoma’s misdemeanor offenders under a contract. Up to 85 percent of the Fife jail’s population during that time were Tacoma prisoners.

Fife wanted a long-term commitment from Tacoma to justify capital improvements to the jail, but the city and Tacoma couldn’t reach a deal. Tacoma took its business back to Pierce County.

Now Fife, facing the prospect of having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to update the jail, has decided the investment doesn’t make sense without a guaranteed flow of prisoners.

“It’s something we can’t afford anymore,” said Subir Mukerjee, Fife’s city manager.

The Fife jail closure follows a trend among smaller cities. Few still maintain their own jails due to rising costs of medical care for prisoners and improvements necessary to meet higher jail standards.

Buckley once had its own jail, too. The city of 4,500 people shut its jail three years ago when the costs of staffing it and the costs of keeping up with rising standards began to balloon, said Mayor Patricia Johnson.

The city tried to generate more revenue by taking in prisoners from other jurisdictions, but the operation didn’t pay its way.

Now Buckley and other cities without jails send their prisoners to the decreasing number of jails operated by other cities. Among the jurisdictions with jails in the region are Puyallup, Eatonville, the South Correctional Entity \in Des Moines, the Nisqually Tribe and Fife — until now.

With the Fife jail closing, cities are scrambling to find places to house inmates with sentences of a year or less. More lengthy sentences are served in state prisons. Several cities say they will use SCORE, a large regional jail with more than 800 beds built by a consortium of South King County cities, to handle their incarceration needs.

There are pluses and minuses to using that facility. It accepts virtually all prisoners regardless of their behaviors or medical conditions, and SCORE provides inmate transport services. But the jail’s location makes visiting difficult for relatives, and the daily costs (more than $100) are relatively high.

Some smaller Pierce County towns send prisoners convicted of misdemeanors with longer jail sentences to Yakima County. Despite the expense of transporting the prisoners, the daily cost of housing prisoners in Eastern Washington is less than in the Puget Sound area.

Bonney Lake police like to use the Enumclaw jail because it’s relatively close to the East Pierce County city.

But Enumclaw is becoming increasingly selective about which prisoners it will accept, said Bonney Lake Mayor Neil Johnson. Enumclaw is particularly concerned about accepting prisoners with medical issues that might require expensive treatment or hospitalization, he said.

Puyallup, which recently purchased a South Hill-area site for its police headquarters, is studying whether to build a jail there or to give up the jail business altogether, said Puyallup Mayor John Hopkins.

Cities are getting some relief as judges are using a broader arsenal of alternative sentencing methods. Electronic home monitoring is becoming more common, as are counseling programs and treatment programs. In many cases, the cost of those options is borne by offenders.

“We’re looking for other alternatives when jails once were the answer,” said the Bonney Lake mayor.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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