Trump budget would build a $66 million military jail in Pierce County

The $469 billion defense budget proposal the Trump administration presented in May includes a big-ticket item for Joint Base Lewis-McChord: $66 million to build a nicer jail.

The existing 16-building jail, which opened in 1956 as the Fort Lewis Stockade, now goes by the Northwest Regional Correctional Facility. It would be demolished under the budget proposal and its replacement would have the same 150-inmate capacity.

According to Defense Department documents, the new jail would have “basketball courts, a running track and an all-purpose athletic field.”

It also would include air conditioning, closed-circuit television surveillance and unspecified anti-terrorism measures.

The 61-year-old facility now holds, on average, 110 or 120 prisoners, and is badly outdated, with wiring and plumbing built to 1950s standards and never fully updated, Army spokesman Gary Dangerfield said.

Its water has gone out, its sewers have backed up and its inmates have to be shuffled around for emergency repairs, he said.

The jail lost accreditation after a yearlong shutdown for repairs in 2008 and wasn’t re-accredited until 2011, Dangerfield said.

The Army and the American Correctional Association, a nonprofit that sets and administers jail and prison accreditation standards, refused to provide the jail’s administration report. The Army cited security concerns.

According to News Tribune archives, the jail was built for $552,792 in a little under a year and opened with a capacity to hold 265 male inmates.

A story about its opening said the base construction manager bragged about the punitive conditions: “No effort has been made to furnish all comforts of home for its future inhabitants.”

Over the decades, those inhabitants included some notorious and violent service members.

Robert Bales, who killed 16 Afghan civilians in 2012, did time there.

So did Calvin Gibbs, the former staff sergeant convicted of leading the “Afghan kill team” that murdered three civilians in 2010, and Ryan Anderson, the Washington National Guardsman convicted of treason in 2004 for providing military information to al-Qaida

The evolution of U.S. standards for jails brought some changes to the JBLM stockade.

Accreditation guidelines for correctional facilities began spreading in the 1970s and included minimum square footage and bathroom ratios per prisoner. To help inmates better themselves, some of the stockade’s cell space was converted into a library and classrooms.

Capacity went down, but even now, the jail is considered “undersized” for its current population and overly reliant on old-style open bays instead of one- and two-person cells, the Army documents said.

In a reflection of how ideas about incarceration have changed, the Army explained the need for a new project partly in terms of inmate discomfort: “Total floor space per prisoner standards are not met and the noise levels are noticeably high,” the budget document states.

The jail project must survive the congressional budgeting process to move ahead.

The Defense Department wrote that its design could be finished in June 2018, and, if the project is approved, a construction contract could be awarded in January.

Under that time line, the new jail would be completed in early 2021, the document says.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally