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Mothballing Prison Units in Washington State is a Long-Term Mistake

By Tracey A. Thompson
Published in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin
November 10, 2009

The final report recommending the closure of facilities at the Department of Corrections (DOC) is shortsighted and should not sway the Governor’s office or the Washington State Legislature. The report’s recommendation to close critical prison units would jeopardize public safety and result in only short-term savings while in all likelihood increasing the State’s costs over the long term.

The report is the result of a hastily conducted study analyzing the elimination of beds at DOC. The consultants hired by the Office of Financial Management (OFM) to carry out the study recommend three closure options. Their preferred option suggests that the state downsize the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) and the Larch Corrections Center (LCC) while using $41 million in capital funds to construct new units at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP). Once the new units are built at the Penitentiary, McNeil Island would reopen and the Main Institution at the Penitentiary would close.

The consultants say they considered several factors in making their recommendations, including inmate population forecasts and the effect of closures on DOC employees and the surrounding communities. Despite this claim, however, the report appears to have been written in a vacuum. It minimizes the input of important stakeholders, lacks a thoughtful analysis of current economic conditions, and most troubling, concedes that prison closures today may have to be revisited in as little as two years.

The most immediate impact of prison closures would be on the economy and on public safety. Enacting the report’s recommendations would lead to the loss of hundreds of good, family wage jobs in economically distressed areas. With unemployment nearing 10% statewide, the proposed elimination of units would exacerbate the lack of work opportunity and prolong the State’s economic downturn. Furthermore, the report makes no mention of the impact that the current economic downturn is likely to have on recidivism. The consultants base their report on a projected dip in incarceration rates over the next two years; yet it seems reasonable to assume that recidivism rates will be higher in a down economy where there is high unemployment. We put our communities at risk if we do not have the bed capacity in our prisons for repeat offenders.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the report is that shuttered units may need to be reopened at a significant cost to taxpayers if long-term inmate populations increase, as they likely will according to the report’s own projections. Additional resources would need to be expended to recruit and train new staff. In a dangerous prison environment, experienced correctional workers are invaluable to ensuring the safety and security within the prisons and in their surrounding communities.

The announcement of a study to explore the possibility of prison closures galvanized communities in Walla Walla, Pierce County and Monroe. Public officials, business and labor leaders, corrections’ workers, along with the families of inmates formed community task forces to draw the consultants’ attention to these and other important issues. Sadly, their input was largely overlooked. Input provided by police chiefs and prosecuting attorneys was also ignored.

Serious prison reform should involve thoughtful research that leads to carefully-considered public policy, not a hastily constructed mandate tied to political expediency.

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