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Open county jail to homeless? Pam Roach says why not, but sheriff says it’s a bad, misinformed idea

The newer section of the Pierce County Jail houses inmates in dormitory-style settings, supervised by a corrections officer. County Councilwoman Pam Roach says unused areas of the jail could be opened to the homeless, but Sheriff Paul Pastor says it’s a bad, simplistic idea.
The newer section of the Pierce County Jail houses inmates in dormitory-style settings, supervised by a corrections officer. County Councilwoman Pam Roach says unused areas of the jail could be opened to the homeless, but Sheriff Paul Pastor says it’s a bad, simplistic idea. peter.haley@thenewstribune.com

According to Pierce County Councilwoman Pam Roach, it’s just an idea, just a question: Why not open 700 shuttered beds in the county jail to people experiencing homelessness?

According to Sheriff Paul Pastor, whose office runs the jail, it’s a dubious idea and a question grounded in misinformation: It ignores liability problems, skates past potentially massive retrofitting costs and exaggerates potential jail capacity.

The question appears in a survey Roach mailed to her constituents last month at public expense, using her county communications budget. It leads with a photo Roach said she took herself: a view of the jail’s older section, shot from Tacoma Avenue.

Roach said 67 percent of constituents who have responded to the mailer are all for the idea.

From the sheriff’s standpoint, the erroneous information starts with the image itself.

“She took a picture of the wrong building,” said sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, adding that the older section of the jail is brim-full of inmates, with no room to spare.

Asked for comment, County Council members Doug Richardson and Derek Young deferred to Pastor and his legal authority.

“I’ll let (the sheriff’s department) speak to the challenges with this idea,” Young said. “If Councilmember Roach wants to make a serious proposal, I’ll consider it at that time.”

Pastor, alerted to the mailer, sent Roach a lengthy note on Jan. 8, suggesting she should have consulted him beforehand.

“I would have preferred the opportunity to explain why I do not support the use of jail space for homelessness,” he wrote. “The primary reason is risk and liability for the County. There may be a number of things which you are not aware of in the area of jail operations.”

The jail is actually two jails: an older, hard-security section typically reserved for high-risk offenders, and a new section designed for lower-level inmates, constructed in 2003 for $59.2 million.

At its theoretical maximum, the jail could house almost 1,800 inmates. In practice, largely due to budget considerations, the number is lower, with an average daily population of 1,166.

That means sections of the newer portion of the jail go unused. Those “pods,” designed to hold 84 inmates in a dormitory style-setting, supervised by a single corrections officer, represent the target for Roach’s idea.

She envisions homeless people using the pods, with social service workers (not county employees) on hand to provide assistance.

“What I’m talking about is getting hundreds of people off the street,” she said. “It is cold, it is rainy, it’s wet. We want to give shelter. We need to get them to come in so we can help them. The concept here isn’t that we have jail guards, because they’re not inmates.”

Part of Roach’s impulse stems from her frustration with a November decision by County Council members to allow tiny-home developments in Pierce County over her objections. She also opposed a planned 16-bed crisis stabilization center in Parkland aimed at providing immediate service to people facing mental health emergencies.

“We’re only nickel-and-diming with these fly-by-night programs,” she said. “The people in my district don’t favor spending $100,000 a unit on tiny homes. They do want to find places for the homeless. The jail would be a very good place to explore for helping the homeless.”

Roach insists that 700 beds are available. Pastor says the real number is far lower. He adds that unused capacity at the jail should be reserved for inmates and criminal offenders as the county grows and needs emerge.

“Contrary to what your mailing may suggest, there are no vacant beds in the old jail,” he wrote in his note to her. “On the 4th floor of the new jail, there are two units which are fully outfitted and ready to use for jail housing. The total beds in these units is 168. These are the only units available for housing inmates in emergent situations, such as construction projects, unit equipment failure(s), emergency booking needs, etc.”

Roach, known for complaining that county leaders exclude her from preparatory conversations about policy ideas, said she spoke to Pastor and Corrections Chief Patti Jackson-Kidder about her proposal long before she sent the mail piece. The 700-bed number came from those conversations, she said.

The sheriff’s department has a different view.

“Pam is mistaken,” Troyer said. “I’ve talked with both Patti and Paul, and they have no memory of that conversation.”

Roach also didn’t discuss her idea with Robert Thoms and Keith Blocker, two Tacoma City Council members whose districts surround the jail. Since the site is within the city, Tacoma police would have jurisdiction over matters requiring a law enforcement response.

Thoms, calling Roach’s suggestion “a pretty provocative idea,” said she didn’t discuss it with him, though he added he was willing to explore all avenues to address the homelessness crisis.

Blocker was more blunt.

“I have not had any discussions with Pam Roach ever,” Blocker said. “I’ve not heard of that idea, from her or anybody else from the County Council. I’m not an advocate for putting people experiencing homelessness inside of our jails. I think we could be far more creative in terms of addressing the homeless epidemic. I would be happy to work with the County Council to figure out other strategies.”

Roach guessed it would cost $200,000 to create a separate entry at the new jail for homeless services. Troyer and Pastor said it would likely cost more, though they did not offer estimates. They added that it wouldn’t be as simple as knocking down a wall and building a new door.

“You’ve got all the costs to retrofit,” Troyer said. “You’ve got exits, entrances, elevators. You’d be mixing populations.”

Pastor’s note to Roach added that the history of the jail includes a long-running federal lawsuit that imposed various restrictions and penalties due to overcrowding. He contended that adding a new layer of homeless services in the same location would create new risks.

“The suggested use would jeopardize the overall operational management of the jail by violating the safety perimeter,” he wrote. “It could create other risks related to disease transmission, evacuation issues, and the difficulty and cost of controlling mentally ill and addicted persons in a crowded, confined, dormitory-type space. ... I appreciate that you seek to find solutions. But use of the jail would likely create more problems than it would solve.”

Roach, undeterred, pointed out that King County leaders decided last year to open a shuttered wing of their downtown jail to people experiencing homelessness.

“None of this has been studied,” she said. “It is an idea. This is being done in other places. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and so you find that way.”

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.

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