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Originally published Friday, November 19, 2010 at 4:13 PM

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Washington to close prison on McNeil Island

State officials said Friday they will close the McNeil Island Corrections Center on April 1, the third Department of Corrections prison to close in the past year as officials grapple with a growing budget deficit.

Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. —

State officials said Friday they will close the McNeil Island Corrections Center on April 1, the third Department of Corrections prison to close in the past year as officials grapple with a growing budget deficit.

The McNeil Island prison is the least efficient in the state, in part because it is on an island, Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said.

"This will save the most money without compromising the safety of our staff, the offenders and the public," he said.

The approximately 500 inmates at the prison near Steilacoom in south Puget Sound will be scattered among the remaining 12 institutions.

McNeil Island is also home to the state's Special Commitment Center, where sexually violent predators are indefinitely held for treatment after completing their prison sentences. That center is operated by the Department of Social and Health Services and will remain open, prison spokesman Chad Lewis said.

Costs to operate ferries, barges and fire boats to McNeil Island will shift to DSHS, and service will likely be reduced when the prison closes, the Corrections Department said.

On Thursday, state officials learned the budget deficit for the rest of the fiscal year had swelled by an additional $385 million to more than $900 million. The 2011-2013 deficit is now pegged at about $5.7 billion out of a roughly $33 billion general fund.

Corrections must reduce spending by nearly $53 million this fiscal year as a result of 6 percent across-the-board cuts due to declining tax revenue. Earlier this week, the agency conducted a one-day lockdown of state prisons as a way to reduce salary costs. Such lockdowns will occur once a month.

Vail said additional cuts to the agency would be difficult to achieve.

"I don't have any more fat or deadwood or waste or fraud in my agency," Vail said.

He didn't rule out the closure of more prisons in the future, although he said the state's prison population has been on the decline.

There are a few hundred free beds at the other state prisons, he said. If those became full, he would prefer to contract with other states to house prisoners rather than crowd Washington prisons, Vail said.

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McNeil Island was a federal prison from 1875 until it closed in 1976. The state leased it from the federal government and reopened the prison in 1981. The federal prison's most famous inmates include Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," who was held there from 1909-12, and Charles Manson, who was an inmate from 1961-66 for trying to cash a forged government check.

The Corrections Department had originally planned to close Larch Corrections Center near Vancouver, but found that would not save enough money. The agency will save $6.3 million a year by closing McNeil Island, compared to $2 million by closing Larch.

In the past year, McNeil Island has been reduced from a a medium-security prison with 1,200 offenders to a minimum-security prison with 515 offenders. There are about 245 staff members.

"We will do all we possibly can to find them positions elsewhere in the agency," Vail said. There are five prisons within a 90-minute drive of Steilacoom, the agency said.

This is the third prison the agency, which houses some 16,000 inmates, has closed within a year. Two minimum-security prisons, Ahtanum View Corrections Center in Yakima and Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women near Spokane, previously closed.

Larch Corrections Center will return to full capacity and house 480 offenders. It currently houses about 240 offenders.

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