Washington State Prisons Seek Expansion Funding

TACOMA, Wash. — In response to an upswing in prison inmate numbers, Washington state lawmakers have requested an additional $1.8 million be added to Gov. Jay Inslee’s December budget. The money would support the planning process for the expansion and renovation of existing facilities in an attempt to keep pace with a rising correctional population.

Though Washington closed three major correctional facilities between 2009 and 2011 due to budget shortfalls and declining inmate numbers, the state has seen a sharp shift in the previous trend. The number of male inmates has risen to just over 16,000, a three percent increase over the previous year. Meanwhile the female inmate population grew at an even faster rate, increasing seven percent over the past 12 months. DOC spokesman Chad Lewis said part of the increase is a result of revisions to the state’s firearms-related crimes, which have led to longer sentences.

This increase, combined with ongoing budget deficiencies, has forced the state’s existing facilities to take on more bodies than they were ever designed to handle. At the Washington Corrections Center for Women, inmates are now placed three to a two-bunk cell, with one woman occupying a mattress on the floor.

The same is true for men’s facility, the Washington Corrections Center (WCC). The structure was originally designed to house just 720 inmates, but is operating with an average daily population of roughly 1,700. There, incoming inmates spend their first days at the facility as “rugs,” sleeping on rubber mats as they await a permanent assignment. It’s a situation that worries correctional officials, and increases tension and violence between prisoners.

To address these issues the state is considering several options, including the reopening of dilapidated units at the 126-year-old Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Despite the considerable maintenance challenges, the facility could still offer an additional 250 critically needed beds. Officials have also proposed turning the Maple Lane School, part of the state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration lockup, into an adult facility. Despite the cost involved, some state officials believe renovation and expansion would still be more effective than renting out county jail beds or shifting inmates to facilities out of state.

Though these and other proposals would ease current crowding and security concerns, they still fall short of the state’s projected need for 900 new prison beds by 2016. The state has had their eye on this figure for some time, and had planned to construct a new facility in the western part of the state. However, budget deficiencies have delayed this plan to 2018.