Prison woes: Population boom brings huge price tag

January 27, 2004

Associated Press
King 5 News

OLYMPIA - Washington's prisons are so crowded that some inmates are sleeping on the floor and some have been shipped out of state under a rent-a-cell program.

The fix? Lawmakers are being asked to approve an $81 million budget increase, expand a prison in Franklin County and let some convicts out of prison early. Some legislators are balking at the price tag, but concede they have a problem.

Due to tougher, longer sentences and a new trend for counties to send more prisoners to state facilities, the state prisons are growing faster than normal.

A new projection shows the prisons growing by more than 900 inmates by the next fiscal year, or about 6 percent more than forecast when the current budget was written just six months ago.
Washington's state corrections system houses nearly 16,300 inmates.
"It simply is a growth industry, whether we like it or not," state prison chief Joseph Lehman said Monday.

The state corrections system, which includes large institutions at Walla Walla, Monroe, McNeil Island, Purdy, Shelton, Clallam Bay, Airway Heights and Aberdeen, houses nearly 16,300 inmates. That figure is expected to grow to more than 20,000 in the next 10 years.

Design capacity for the prisons is less than 15,000 inmates.

The state sent 240 inmates to Nevada's High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs near Las Vegas last May. The state Senate Ways and Means Committee learned Monday that the number of rent-a-cell inmates could balloon to 1,000 by year's end.

The state also is paying King County to house 200 inmates. All have violated their terms of release. Benton County plans to take 100 such prisoners.

But the mainline prisons still are at or over capacity.

Some inmates are sleeping on mattresses on the floor at the Shelton prison's reception center.

Some relief is in sight. The Legislature last year approved construction of 868 new cells at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.

Gov. Gary Locke has asked lawmakers to accelerate a similar expansion at Coyote Ridge prison at Connell. The early work would cost $46 million; total project cost is $140 million.

Locke also is asking for an $81 million increase in the $1.2 billion operating budget for the Department of Corrections.

The governor assumes that lawmakers will save $18 million by retroactively applying the early-release law they passed last year for nonviolent drug offenders.

But the budget leaders in the House and Senate say that it's unlikely the Legislature will approve the change in the sentencing law. Lawmakers said it's also questionable whether the Coyote Ridge expansion will be authorized.

"We won't build a new prison this year," said Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park. She described that as the consensus of budget leaders and policy committee chairmen in both chambers.

Dick Van Wagenen, the governor's adviser on prisons, acknowledged that costs are soaring as lawmakers continue to face the price tag for years of cracking down on crime. He said the trend is made even worse by the demand by King and other counties for compensation for housing people who violate their terms of release from state prison.

"Next to health care, this is our largest long-term increase in state spending," Van Wagenen said in an interview.

The latest request is the largest single item in the governor's new $191 million supplemental budget and the new prison is the largest item in the proposed construction budget.

Senate budget Chairman Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, and other panel members told the prison system the state has to look for ways to hold down costs. When Lehman mentioned that the state pays $67 a day per inmate shipped off to Nevada, compared with $71 in state, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, quipped, "Ship 'em all there."

Sens. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, and Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, said the state needs to pay more attention to prevention and investing more in kids before they grow up and turn to a life of crime.



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