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Cuts to state prisons troubling to many

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By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
Published:
There's a razor-thin line between safe and sorry inside state prisons and Kimberly Nichols thinks it's getting crossed — in the wrong direction.
She's the wife of a prison guard at Monroe Correctional Complex and she's been telling anyone who will listen how planned budget cuts will mean less pay and more risk for her husband.
She first lashed out at the Department of Corrections last month in e-mails to the press and radio interviews. She called it “ludicrous” to help those imprisoned for life earn a high school degree and a waste of money to provide cable television privileges to all.
She's not happy that furlough days are increasing while a salary incentive intended to attract more people to work at prisons in Monroe and Walla Walla is going away.
On Wednesday, she and her husband, Doug, met with Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail to run through their litany of concerns. She had questions and wanted answers but figured he'd put on “a dog-and-pony show” to soothe her ruffled feathers.
That's not what happened at all.
“He was visibly shaken and said he was filled with angst that he has to make the cuts,” she said. “He told me, and you can write this down, “I don't like the decisions being made. They scare me'.”
There's good reason for Nichols and Vail to be equally worried. Each slice of spending is reducing the sense of security for everyone inside facilities.
“I've been saying the moves we have made do increase risk,” Vail said Friday. “It makes us all a little bit nervous.”
In September, Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered agencies, including corrections, to cut 6.3 percent of their spending because of a deficit.
That worked out to $53 million for corrections which Vail nearly reached by dicing small pieces from every corner of the budget.
Convicted sex offenders will get less treatment before release. Education, counseling and chemical dependency programs will be scaled back. There'll be complete lockdowns at some prisons each month.
New officers will get less training. There'll be fewer officers on patrol in kitchens where inmates can pocket implements for later use as a weapon.
Workers who direct sports, crafts and other recreation programs are getting laid off. While taxpayers might view these as a costly fringe benefit, prison workers consider them pivotal to everyone's survival.
“Without these programs to occupy their time the inmates will be antsy, angry and irritable and will take it out on each other and the workers,” said Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117 which represents 6,000 correctional workers spread throughout all the prisons.
On Wednesday, union members set up an informational picket line outside the Monroe Correctional Complex. More than 100 workers walked it from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Amid the pouring rain and blustery wind, Vail joined them in the morning where he heard their concerns about their personal safety. They said they also worry deeply how the combination of lower pay, more furlough days and rising health care costs may leave them unable to pay bills or mortgages.
He tried to explain the decisions and noted how, despite all the cuts, the department still needed to trim more. The department didn't reach the $53 million mark until Friday when he ordered closure of the McNeil Island Corrections Center.
“That was a compelling experience,” Vail said.
When he met with the Nichols later that day he came away encouraged by Kimberly Nichols' commitment to speaking out. It can only help lawmakers and the public understand, he said.
She'll be among the crowd of corrections employees and family members attending a Dec. 9 rally in Olympia and meetings with lawmakers.
“We need to tell the story of what's happening in the department,” she said. “This is a matter of safety for the workers and the public.”
It sounds like Nichols and Vail are on the same side of that line.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield's blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » PrisonState

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