Special Reports

Pierce County: Dumping ground

Pierce County is a dumping ground for the state prison system, which for years has been sending Tacoma and its neighboring communities more than their share of ex-convicts.

Pierce County is not alone, nor is it the worst dumping ground. Spokane gets far more than its share of ex-convicts and inmates nearing release.

State officials promise to ease Pierce County’s problem, but because the situation has evolved over decades, the remedy will take years.

The steady flow of inmates into Pierce County accounts, at least in part, for the county’s high crime rate, puts a burden on neighborhoods where offenders are likely to resume their lives of crime and makes county taxpayers bear the cost of policing and prosecuting them.

In a yearlong investigation, The News Tribune found two prison programs that account for the imbalance: pre-release and work release.

Ex-cons in our midst
The number of Washington prison inmates released to pre-release and work-release facilities in the past 13 years.
PIERCE     4,402
KING     7,698
SPOKANE     3,078
YAKIMA      1,632
WHATCOM      873
CLARK     745
COWLITZ     1,604
THURSTON      854
KITSAP     1,147
FRANKLIN     717
PIERCE     5,773
SPOKANE     8,795
This chart shows the difference in the number of convicts counties sent to prison and the number of prisoners released directly to the counties or through pre-release and work-release programs in the past 13 years. Numbers are a percentage of total.
  To prison Sent back % Diff.
PIERCE 16.56  20.36 22.95
KING 25.82 26.73 3.52
SPOKANE 6.21 16.73 169.4
SNOHOMISH 7.21 4.06 -43.69

In pre-release, prisoners took anger-management and job-hunting classes and underwent treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. Then, most of them were moved into work-release programs for the final three to four months of their sentences. There they worked at jobs or went to school to prepare them for their release into the community.

Pierce County has three work-release programs – Progress, RAP and Lincoln Park houses – and until April 2005, had a pre-release center in Lakewood.

In each of the past 13 years, the programs dealt with hundreds of ex-convicts, many from other counties. Statistics show many of them are sure to commit new crimes.

Prosecutor Gerry Horne, for one, has been combatting state prison officials over the programs since he took office eight years ago. He’s been trying to persuade officials to send prison inmates to the counties where they committed their first crimes instead of sending so many from elsewhere to Pierce County.

“They funnel people into Pierce County,” Horne said. Prison officials “send these masses down here to Pierce County and many of them re-offend before they get out. They just recycle them through the work-release programs.”

Of the state’s 16 work-release centers, three are in Tacoma. The others are shared by nine other counties. Until last year, Pierce and Spokane counties were the only counties to house the state’s pre-release centers.

Horne found a sympathetic ear in the state’s new Department of Corrections secretary. Harold Clarke, who was appointed in April 2005, oversees the state prison system and its nearly 18,000 inmates, as well as more than 42,000 ex-convicts under supervision in Washington communities.

Clarke acknowledges Pierce County is getting more than its fair share of offenders and has pledged to do a better job of spreading them around the state.

“We are not interested with unduly saddling any jurisdiction with an unfair share of the burden,” he told The News Tribune.

Clarke announced Aug. 2 that he plans to look for additional sites to place work-release centers and singled out Snohomish County because it has no such facility and is the state’s third-largest job market.

On the other hand, he did not rule out more centers coming to Pierce County. Consequently, Pierce County cities are continuing their resistance to long-standing prison policies that created an imbalance of offenders here:

 • Tacoma has imposed a somewhat successful moratorium on group homes to try to stave off the ex-convicts who tend to live in clusters in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

 • Lakewood is fighting the state prison system over a proposal to move the Progress House work-release program and its 75 inmates from Tacoma’s West End to the grounds of Western State Hospital.

 • Tacoma and Spokane legislators recently teamed up to try to stem the flow of ex-convicts the prison system sends to their counties in disproportionate numbers.

Those efforts are trying to correct an imbalance created by 30 years of prison policies.

LUI KIT WONG/The News Tribune

A former inmate uses a unique ID number to check into the Pierce County Community Justice Center. The machine also uses biometric technology to track people, and prints a receipt as verification.

Pierce and the 38 other counties in Washington receive inmates from two primary sources: the 15 state prisons that release inmates directly into communities, or the 16 work-release centers located in 10 counties.

Between 1993 and 2005, the state Department of Corrections released 11,425 inmates into Pierce County after they finished their prison sentences.

The News Tribune examined those 13 years because they are the longest period for which there is comparable data for convictions, prison releases and placements in pre- and work-release programs.

Pierce County’s share was 16.6 percent of the total number of inmates released to Washington communities over that period.

In most instances, those inmates chose where they wanted to live, and prison officials approved. Some are supervised; some are not.

During those same years, the county accounted for 16.6 percent of the number of inmates who were sent to prison.

Photos by LUI KIT WONG/The News Tribune

RAP House, at 3704 S. Yakima Ave. in Tacoma, is one of threee inmate work-release programs in the city.
Lincoln House, at 3706 S. Yakima Ave. is home to the state's mentally ill and developmentally disabled felons.
Progress House stands at 5601 Sixth Ave. There are 16 work-release programs in Washington state as a whole.

However, unlike most other counties, Pierce also dealt with problems that came from the hundreds of inmates sent into the work-release programs at Progress, Lincoln Park and RAP houses, as well as the pre-release program in Lakewood, which closed in April 2005.

On any given day, as many as 265 inmates were housed in those four facilities. They were in addition to the 880 inmates who were released to Pierce County over the course of a typical year.

Horne says most of the inmates that prison officials placed in pre-release and work-release facilities didn’t belong here because they committed their first crimes in another county.

“Part of the purpose of work-release and pre-release is to reintegrate these people back into the community,” he said.

Finding jobs for those inmates in Pierce County isn’t reintegrating them to their home communities, if they first broke the law elsewhere, Horne said.

Lincoln Park and RAP houses, where the Department of Corrections sends its mentally ill and developmentally disabled felons, are the best examples of how criminals from outside Pierce County end up here. Since the state has no such facilities in any other county, Pierce County gets them all.

Horne said his staff examined the criminal histories of 4,400 inmates sent to the three work-release and pre-release programs between 1998 and 2003 and discovered about 2,950, or two out of three, committed their first offense in a county other than Pierce. Yet, they “returned” to Tacoma.

And they keep returning. Dozens of the inmates who spent the last months of their sentences at Progress House between 1993 and 2005 were enrolled repeatedly after they committed other crimes, some four or five times.

Consider the case of John Henry Mathers. Though extreme, the case illustrates many of Horne’s complaints about the prison system and work-release programs.

Mathers was first sent to prison by a Snohomish County judge after he was convicted in 1972 of threatening a 12-year-old girl with a knife and raping her. Before his arrest on that offense, Mathers, then 20, raped an 11-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister, also in Snohomish County.

Mathers served most of his eight-year sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, but was transferred to a work-release program in Tacoma in 1979 to finish his sentence.

He escaped and fled to California, where he stabbed a woman. In 1981, he was back at the Tacoma work-release program and was given a four-hour pass.

He raped and stabbed a woman he met at a bus stop, then escaped from the work-release program a few days later as police were bringing his victim to the facility to identify him.

Mathers was caught, and a Pierce County court sent him to prison in 1981. But in 1989, he escaped from a prison farm in Snohomish County. He turned himself in two months later.

Mathers eventually finished his multiple prison sentences and in 1997 was locked up for treatment in the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. That’s where the state houses its worst sex predators, those considered likely to reoffend if freed.

After five years of treatment, Mathers was allowed to travel off the island, through Tacoma, to a job in South King County. But he was fired because of the negative publicity.

Today, Mathers, now 54, remains confined at the sex predator facility on McNeil Island.


To a great extent, Pierce County gets more than its share of former inmates because Snohomish County gets so few.

While Pierce County was the recipient of 21,600 releases from prison, work-release and pre-release programs between 1993 and 2005, Snohomish County received only 4,306.

Even though Pierce County is only 15 percent larger than Snohomish, it gets five times as many released prisoners.

While Snohomish County courts accounted for 7.21 percent of the inmates sent to prison statewide, it got back 4.06 percent of those released.

The main reason Snohomish County gets so small a portion of the total is that it no longer has any work-release programs. It once had two – one in Everett, the other in Monroe – but both were shut down more than 20 years ago.

As a result, criminals from Snohomish County often are sent to counties that do have state work-release programs – King, Spokane, Yakima, Whatcom, Clark, Cowlitz, Thurston, Kitsap and Benton-Franklin counties. Hundreds of them end up in Pierce County.

The high number of ex-convicts in Pierce County, combined with the work-release inmates, helps explain why the crime rate in Pierce County is so high. In fact, Pierce County has had the highest violent crime rate in the state for 23 consecutive years.

Pierce County’s overall crime rate – which includes crimes against people as well as property crimes – is nearly 30 percent higher than Snohomish’s. Pierce County’s is 59 crimes per 1,000 people compared to 45.5 in Snohomish.

The comparison of violent crimes is more stark. The incidence of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault is 5.5 per 1,000 in Pierce but only 2.4 in Snohomish. Pierce County’s violent crime rate is 129 percent higher than Snohomish’s.

Within Tacoma, the violent crime rate is almost double the countywide rate – 10.2 per 1,000.

Many of Pierce County’s crimes are committed by former inmates after they are released.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds of inmates released from prison will be arrested again, and 47 percent will be convicted of another crime within three years.

The tendency to commit more crimes among work-release inmates is worse than it is for those released directly to the community, without the “benefits” of work release, said Horne, citing a 2003 study by the Seattle consulting firm Lachman and Laing.

Clarke, who held the top job at Nebraska’s prison system for 14 years, said work-release inmates are more likely to get caught committing another crime because they are more closely monitored than inmates released directly to the community without supervision.

He said inmate releases are a factor in Pierce County’s crime rate.

“If you are going to focus most of your returns” – meaning inmate releases – “to any one location, to any one county, I think your rate of reoffense is going to be higher,” Clarke said.


On one level, it appears Snohomish County already shoulders its own heavy burden. After all, it has the largest prison inmate population of any county in the state, with 2,461 inmates confined at the reformatory and Twin Rivers complex in Monroe.

Pierce County has only 2,100 inmates, 1,300 at the men’s prison on McNeil Island and 800 in the Women’s Treatment Center at Purdy.

But it’s not those behind bars who pose a problem for communities, Horne said. It’s those in work release.

“Snohomish County does have more prison inmates than Pierce, but that doesn’t hurt you because they aren’t out there wandering the streets,” he said.

Prisons also are an economic boon to a community. In fact, the prison industry and related facilities account for 5,000 jobs and nearly $300 million in annual spending in Pierce County.

That’s why communities actively sought them in the 1970s. Pierce County wanted the prisons on McNeil Island and in Purdy.

“Keep in mind that we were going through a recession for some of those years and people lobbied for prisons for economic development,” said former state Sen. Lorraine Wojahn, who represented Tacoma in the Legislature for more than 30 years.


Snohomish County no longer has work-release centers largely because of a horrific triple murder in the early 1980s.

Prison officials operated a work-release program directly from the prison in Monroe, but the program ended in 1982. Snohomish County Councilman Gary Nelson, who was a state legislator from 1972 through 1994, said the program closed because of complaints by labor advocates.

Several inmates traveled each day from the prison to work at a local company. After the company’s regular workers went on strike, prison officials continued to transport prison inmates across picket lines so they could keep working.

The union complained that the state was undermining its members and their job walk-out by effectively delivering strike-breakers to their job site, so the work-release program was shut down, Nelson said.

Some of the Monroe work-release inmates were transferred to a similar facility in nearby Everett, including Charles Rodman Campbell.

Campbell is the reason there have been no work-release centers anywhere in Snohomish County for more than 22 years.

One day in 1982, he didn’t go to his job. Instead, he tracked down the woman he had raped eight years earlier – a woman whose testimony sent him to prison – and killed her, a neighbor and the neighbor’s 8-year-old daughter.

Prison officials shut down the work-release center in 1984, two years after the brutal murders. County residents and their elected officials have fended off all efforts by the state to open another facility in the county.

“The public was so mad over a person on a work-release program killing someone,” Nelson said. “There was a lot of animosity about the kinds of people that were being allowed to enter the work-release facility.”

He said Snohomish County officials persuaded the state prison system it didn’t need a work-release facility there.

Ten years later, state prison officials tried to find a new place to open a work-release center for inmates getting out of prison and returning to Snohomish County.

“My marching orders were to re-establish a work-release facility in Snohomish County,” said Joop DeJonge, who from 1994 through 1996 was the Corrections Department’s work-release siting coordinator. “Everett was adamant about not bringing anything back into the city. It was always the public outcry. It was too close to a school or a park or too close to a neighborhood.

“And, of course, the Charles Rodman Campbell case always came up.”

Everett officials couldn’t ban work-release centers outright because the 1991 state Growth Management Act requires cities and counties to accommodate “essential state facilities” such as the centers. So the City Council passed a zoning ordinance that limited work-release centers to a two-block radius downtown.

“It was basically the jail,” DeJonge said, referring to the zoned area. “It was then that we said, ‘What’s the use?’”

Prison officials looked in Lynnwood, Alderwood Manor, Snohomish, Lake Stevens and Smokey Point. But always, there were objections. After eight years of looking and meeting resistance, corrections officials gave up, he said.

Nelson said Snohomish officials are proud of their efforts to keep work-release out of the county, and the Department of Corrections will have to demonstrate the need for such a facility today.

“I’m going to put them through their paces, just like every constituent would want me to,” Nelson said. “We would want DOC to prove its case in siting any facility. That’s what the Growth Management Act says.”

Prison officials must show sufficient numbers of Snohomish County criminals want to return to the county after they finish their prison sentences, he said.

“They have to show a legitimate rationale, not just a knee-jerk reaction that we want to put one here,” Nelson added, referring to a work-release center.

Nelson said he was surprised there wasn’t more of a public outcry in Pierce County when it experienced a similar calamity at the hands of a work-release inmate.

On Aug. 19, 1994, 17-year-old Meeka Willingham, a cheerleader at Stadium High School in Tacoma, was stabbed 56 times. Her killer, Johnny Robert Eggers, had been in Lincoln Park, the Tacoma work-release facility to which the prison systems sends all of its mentally ill offenders to make the transition back into the community.

But Tacoma wasn’t his home.

“He had no connections to Pierce County whatsoever,” Horne said. “All of his crimes were in Eastern Washington or King County.”

Horne said Eggers’ criminal file indicated he wanted to return to the Tri-Cities, but prison officials sent him to Tacoma because of the network of offender-treatment providers here.

Three years after Willingham’s murder, a Pierce County jury found the Department of Corrections negligent and awarded her family $6.3 million. Eggers is serving a life sentence at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.


While prison officials are responsible for placing inmates into work-release programs, they aren’t entirely to blame for the saturation of ex-convicts in Pierce County.

In general, inmates themselves decide where they want to live after they get out of prison, said Anne Fiala, DOC administrator for the region that includes Pierce County.

Many choose Pierce County.

Prison officials can’t forbid an inmate to move into a particular county, she said.

Only a judge can do that, and it’s rarely done. When such a restriction is placed on an ex-convict, it’s generally to keep the offender from coming into contact with past victims, she said.

An inmate’s choice of residence also can be influenced by where he can find a house or an apartment or a job.

Local ministerial groups, church leaders and nonprofit organizations sometimes play a role in those selections. Their members go into state prisons and often offer to help inmates find jobs or places to live or both.

Fresh Start on Tacoma’s East Side is one such group. It offers temporary housing for as many as 10 former inmates, but they have to pay their own way.

“There are churches that go out and do prison ministries in the institutions,” said Lesta Rogers, who also operates a second facility for 20 to 25 former inmates in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. “We help them get a job, get up and running.”

Rogers said she doesn’t consider the work she and her colleagues do as contributing to the high numbers of inmates in Pierce County, even if the inmates they help originally come from other parts of the state.

“We haven’t caused anybody any trouble,” Rogers said. “I’ve been doing this for 17 years. Does everybody make it? No. But I can tell you if you give a man a place to live and a job, that increases his chances to succeed. Don’t you think?”

Carl Jones, president of Citizens for Responsible Justice of Tacoma, said members of his group regularly visit inmates at Monroe as volunteers in the Concerned Lifers’ Organization. The group has brought some inmates into Pierce County.

In fact, Jones’ organization opened a second facility on Tacoma’s Hilltop in May 2005, which is similar to the Fresh Start house on the East Side, but larger.

Jones said his volunteers also have an informal relationship with the state’s community corrections officers when it comes to finding ex-convicts a place to live.

“We have no contract with them for housing,” Jones said. “But they know who we are, and they know about our house.”


Pierce County gets the worst of it on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, but Spokane is an even larger dumping ground on the east side.

Spokane County accounts for 6.21 percent of the number of inmates sent to state prisons. Yet, Spokane County gets 16.73 percent of the releases from prison, work-release programs and its own pre-release center.

The situation for Pierce and Spokane counties improved markedly in April 2005 when the state closed both pre-release centers and transferred those inmates to programs inside the walls of the prison system.

That took about 1,135 inmates out of the pipelines that funneled inmates to the two counties each year. On average, prison officials placed 450 inmates into the Lakewood pre-release and 685 into Spokane’s Pine Lodge pre-release centers.

Prison officials also tightened security at the pre-release centers over the years so they posed less of a threat to public safety. But for many years, inmates sometimes were allowed to leave the grounds without an escort. Mathers, for one, was on a four-hour furlough pass when he raped a woman in Tacoma.

Facing similar problems with the state’s prison programs, Pierce and Spokane lawmakers formed an alliance this past legislative session.

They sponsored a bill that would have required the Department of Corrections to release offenders only to the county in which they originally were convicted.

That measure died in a House committee after victims-rights advocates objected that it could put victims at risk by allowing criminals to return to the county where their victims still live.

State Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, the measure’s prime sponsor, said he hopes to address those concerns and reintroduce the bill next year.


Clarke agreed that Pierce County has been shouldering an unfair burden. If the work-release program is going to work, the state can’t keep sending Snohomish County offenders to facilities in other counties, he said.

“They need a work-release center there,” Clarke said of Snohomish County.

He said he has been discussing the situation with legislators and plans to present to the 2007 Legislature a plan for dispersing prison facilities throughout the state.

“If the DOC had all the muscle it needed to site a facility in Snohomish County, it would have been done already,” Clarke said. “We can go into counties and site facilities now. However, we are not allowed to do it unilaterally. There are regulations and guidelines and hoops we must jump through to get them done.”

He said that if he believes the Legislature can give his agency more authority to make it easier to place work-release centers in other counties, he will ask for it. But he’s not going to close any existing work-release centers.

“That would be a mistake,” Clarke said.

After 30 years in the corrections business, Clarke said he thinks the programs work and need to be protected by more carefully screening the inmates allowed to participate in them.

“To just drop those folks off cold turkey is not going to work,” he said.

Prosecutor Horne said he finds Clarke’s attitude a refreshing and welcome change, especially after years of having his complaints dismissed.

“I didn’t see where we could make any progress if the department wouldn’t even admit they were dumping” inmates here, Horne said.

He thinks comparing the number of inmates a county sends to prison with how many it gets back doesn’t adequately describe the disproportionate burden those ex-convicts place on Pierce County.

The comparison should be made to Pierce County’s population, which shows an even greater imbalance, he said.

Pierce has 12.13 percent of the state population, yet receives 20.36 percent of total prison releases.

If each county had been getting inmates in proportion to its share of the state population from 1993 to 2005, Pierce County would have gotten 9,000 fewer releases, Spokane would have gotten 10,000 fewer and King County would have gotten 2,200 fewer.

On the other hand, Snohomish County would have seen more than 11,000 inmate releases instead of the 4,306 they did get.

It will take many years to correct the imbalance between Pierce and Snohomish counties, even if Clarke succeeds at siting work-release centers in Snohomish County, Horne said.

Pierce County has been getting more than its share for more than 30 years, and that situation can’t be corrected overnight, he said.

Closing the pre-release program in Lakewood last year was a start, but even more significant for Pierce County was the decision several years earlier to place only female offenders in the facility, Horne said. They are much less likely to resume a life of crime, and therefore pose less of a burden on the community, he said.

In the near future, the burden on Pierce County is going to get worse because state and federal prisons are releasing inmates in far greater numbers than they have in the past.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates 600,000 inmates will be returning to communities from state and federal prison this year. In Washington, the state prison system is on pace to release nearly 9,200 inmates this year. That’s up from 1997, for example, when fewer than 6,000 inmates were released.

“It’s not because we’re emptying the jails, because we’re not,” said state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re witnessing a trend from the 1980s when we sent more people to prison. Well, they’re starting to get out. We are seeing the release of the first wave of people we put in in the first place.”

Closing the work-release facilities or conducting a major overhaul are the only things that will lessen the burden of ex-convicts in Pierce County, Horne said.

“The program doesn’t work,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a magnet for other counties’ convicts. Change it or get rid of them.”

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436



Department of Corrections Secretary Harold Clarke announced this summer that he wants to house another 120 work-release inmates in new centers across the state – some in Snohomish County, the rest dispersed across the state.

He has asked Gov. Chris Gregoire to include money for the centers in her budget request to the 2007 Legislature.

If Clarke gets approval, he hopes to open the centers by mid-2009. That would raise the maximum participation in work release to 890 inmates.

Clarke also wants to place inmates in work release when they have as long as one year left on their sentences. Currently, they are eligible only in the final six months of their sentences.

Lakewood continues to resist the Corrections Department’s efforts to move Progress House and its 75 work-release inmates from Tacoma to Lakewood. The department wants to keep the option of using its former pre-release center on the grounds of Western State Hospital, but Lakewood officials object.

State Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, said he plans to reintroduce a bill that would require the department to release offenders only to the county in which they were last convicted.

The measure would satisfy Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne only if the department sends offenders back to the county in which they were first convicted.


This project began in earnest in September 2005 when The News Tribune decided to investigate Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne’s assertion that the county is a dumping ground for ex-convicts and sex offenders.

We invited Horne and members of his staff to talk to us and make that case.

Then we began examining public records that would support or refute Horne’s contention – that the county has been getting more than its fair share of ex-convicts, and that state Department of Corrections officials are responsible for the imbalance.

But what is a fair share? Do you compare the number of inmates released in a county to the county’s population? Do you compare release rates to how many criminals the county sends to prison? Do you consider how many inmates are placed in each county through pre- and work-release programs?

We decided all had some validity, so we looked at all of them.

The time frame: We settled on a 13-year period – partly by design, partly by default. We wanted to look at more than just a single year to see whether any trends became apparent. We chose 1993 as a starting point, largely because that’s how far back we could look at public databases. As an end point, we chose 2005 because that’s the most current year for which all of our databases had comparable records.

Convictions and releases: In the end, to measure each county’s fair share, we decided to use convictions – the number of criminals each county sends to prison – as the standard, and then compare that to the number of inmates released to each county.

For example, if 10 percent of all inmates sent to prison come from one county, then 10 percent would be that county’s “fair share” of releases. If the county gets 12 percent, that is 2 percent too much. If the county gets 8 percent, that is 2 percent too few.

Figuring the percentage for convictions was easy. The state Administrative Office of the Courts publishes annual reports that show those numbers.

Determining the number of releases was more complicated. About 80 percent of inmates are released directly from prison into the community. About 20 percent are released from work-release programs.

Pre-release and work release: Pre-release centers feed into work-release programs. And work-release centers eventually discharge their inmates into the community. There is some duplication among this group of inmates.

Because Pierce and Spokane counties were home to both kinds of facilities, we included inmates from them in our calculations for total releases.

Eight of the other 37 counties also have work-release centers. To get the total number of inmate releases, we used records kept by the Department of Corrections.

Sex offenders: To examine how many sex offenders live in each community, we used the Washington State Patrol sex offender register. It provided a snapshot of how many offenders were living in each community on a single date, Aug. 1, 2006.

Crime rates: Crime rates come from the 2005 report published by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which assembles crime statistics from almost every law enforcement jurisdiction in the state and compares them to crime rates in other jurisdictions.

Interviews: We supplemented our examination of records by interviewing more than 50 officials, consultants and residents from Tacoma, Pierce and Snohomish counties and state agencies.