Pressure building at jampacked state prisons
With far too few beds in the state prison system, leaving a volatile population cramming into already-full cells, the state Department of Corrections is scrambling for housing options.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SHELTON, Mason County —
Each week, about 150 inmates arrive at the Washington Corrections Center for processing before they're assigned a permanent home in the state prison system.
Most are destined to spend their first days in prison as "rugs," the term used by inmates and corrections officers to describe offenders who have to sleep on the concrete floor of cells because of overcrowding. The newcomers bed down on thin rubber mats spread out between the cell's toilet and sink — just feet from two occupied bunks.
Inmates don't like having a third man squeezed into their cells; they complain about the heat generated by three people in a 6-foot-by-9-foot space.
"We don't want any rugs in here. It's crowded enough," inmate William Rivers, a 34-year-old from Wenatchee, said recently from his cell at the Shelton prison.
Rivers doesn't have a voice in the matter. And, increasingly, neither do corrections officials, who find themselves shoehorning more and more inmates into prisons designed for much smaller populations. The recent closures of three prisons, coupled with a spike in incoming inmates, have some prisons bursting at the seams, according to the state Department of Corrections.
The problem is particularly acute at the Shelton prison because it's the first stop for all male inmates, except for those destined for death row at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Rivers, who is serving time for residential burglary and assault, complains that inmate housing at the Washington Corrections Center is far worse than at any other prison he's encountered.
"It's the worst. It's crowded and we're [locked up] 22 hours a day," he said.
The crowded conditions can also lead to safety issues among inmates whose resentment boils over into anger, as well as the corrections officers who are assigned to watch over them. Officers regularly have to squeeze into the tight living units to break up inmate fights, said Dan White, associate superintendent at the Shelton prison.
"Any time that we have to put folks on the floor there is potential for an increase in violence. We can't move anybody where there's no space," White said.
Carving out room
Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Bernie Warner said his staff is scrambling to address overcrowding and bracing for the projected need for about 160 additional prison beds statewide this summer. That's down from 300 beds after officials announced Friday that all single-inmate cells at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe will now house two inmates, giving the prison system 140 new beds.
One possible solution, he said, is to reopen dilapidated units at the 126-year-old Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla that were closed over the past three years. The housing units, with leaky roofs and other maintenance issues, would provide about 250 additional beds.
There are also discussions about renovating the Maple Lane School, a recently closed Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration lockup in Thurston County, so it can be used as an adult prison, said DOC spokesman Chad Lewis.
The expected increase follows a revision last month in the projected number of inmates coming into the prison system, Lewis said. In addition, the three-strikes law and changes in sentencing laws for some firearms-related crimes have led to longer sentences, boosting inmate numbers, he said.
But the bigger dilemma facing the DOC is how to handle the projected need for 900 new prison beds by 2016 — the date that DOC had planned to open a new prison in Western Washington. With the state facing a $1 billion budget shortfall, the opening has been put off until at least 2018, Lewis said.
Washington state currently has 16,000 inmates, so the expected influx of 900 more represents a 5.6 percent increase.
Major overcrowding hasn't been an issue for the Department of Corrections in past years because the agency was able to keep up with the projected demand. In 2009, a minimum-security work camp in Franklin County was expanded into the state's largest prison, housing 2,500 inmates. But facing deep budget cuts, DOC reversed its path and started closing facilities — including the 135-year-old McNeil Island Corrections Center, which cost the system 1,200 inmate beds.
DOC has also closed smaller prisons in Yakima and Spokane, and reopening these facilities is not an option because the costs would be too high, Lewis said.
"What we've done is built newer, more efficient prisons and closed some of the old clunkers," Lewis said. "The early caseload forecast didn't indicate that we would need more beds by July."
DOC officials say that last-resort housing options regularly creep into their conversations — whether it be renting beds in county jails, which tend to be more expensive to run than prisons, or housing inmates out of state.
Warner says the prison system has cut its daily inmate cost from $102 per day to about $90, largely by closing some of the oldest prison units in the state. Overall, the agency has reduced spending by nearly $300 million since 2008 through layoffs, prison closures, program reductions and administrative cuts. The layoffs include community-corrections positions eliminated after two recent laws decreased the number of offenders DOC supervises.
Warner said they "have made our prison system as dense as we can make it with all of our closures and re-purposing of our facilities. We're running at about 102 percent of our rate of capacity, the flexibility is not there."
Cuts across the state have changed who gets locked up, and DOC officials say the typical inmate in Washington state is more violent, more mentally ill, more prone to belong to a street gang, more likely to be a sex offender and highly drug addicted.
"We have a very compact system with offenders who are high risk to reoffend," Warner said.
Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 3,600 corrections officers, says that staff inside the prisons have vocalized concerns about overcrowding to the union.
"Every day I'm getting emails from staff who are concerned about safety," Thompson said.
'It's tense ... every day'
The Washington Corrections Center, with an average daily population routinely nearing 1,700 inmates, provides a good representation of what's being seen across the state prison system. When the prison opened in 1964, it was designed to hold 720 inmates, White said.
Three times a day, five days a week, buses roll into the inmate-processing area at the Shelton prison. Though the intake process is run smoothly, it can be chaotic. The dozens of men brought in daily are stripped down to prison-issued boxer shorts so staff can evaluate any gang tattoos to determine their housing. White estimates that more than 25 percent of the inmates at the Shelton prison belong to gangs.
As a result, planning where to house people can be a life-or-death decision, he said.
At the Shelton prison, members of the Sureños gang have an entire housing block. Members of the rival Norteños are housed elsewhere in the prison.
General population, where inmates are locked up 22 hours a day, often houses everyone from high-profile killers to sex offenders to members of other gangs. The prison's intensive management unit, or solitary confinement for the most dangerous, is always full.
"It's tense in here every day," White said. "The staff need to have good communication skills to put a lid on things, especially when you're talking about a cell with three guys."
White and his staff said they are greeted daily with the same question from inmates: When will they be moved into their more permanent placement elsewhere in the prison system? Staff say they're honest, telling inmates about the delayed wait times because of overcrowding, but it doesn't stop the daily line of questioning.
"They can be quite testy," said Corrections Officer Rodian Salinas, who has worked 30 years at the Shelton prison.
In Salinas' housing unit, rubber mats are lined up near the entryway. White said he expects a sharp increase in inmates sleeping on the floor as population numbers increase by summer — something that is expected to set off inmates even more.
"Our vacancy light is always illuminated and the buses keep coming in every day," White said
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed
to this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.