State prisons running out of room

  • Mon Mar 26th, 2012 2:39pm
  • News

Associated Press

SEATTLE — With about 16,000 inmates, Washington prisons are at 102 percent of capacity, and officials need to find space by this summer to hold 160 more, the state Department of Corrections said.

The department found space last week for 140 inmates by deciding to house two inmates each in single-inmate cells at the state Reformatory in Monroe.

Now, the department is considering reopening dilapidated units at the state Penitentiary at Walla Walla or renovating units at Maple Lane School, a recently closed Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration lockup at Grand Mound, The Seattle Times reported Monday.

The crowding is visible at the state Corrections Center at Shelton, the first stop for about 150 inmates a week entering the state prison system.

Most prisoners are destined to spend their first days as “rugs,” a term used to describe offenders who have to sleep on the concrete floor of cells because of overcrowding.

Inmates don’t like having a third man squeezed into cells that measure 6 feet by 9 feet.

“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.

“It’s the worst. It’s crowded and we’re (locked up) 22 hours a day,” said Rivers, who is serving time for residential burglary and assault.

The Shelton prison was designed to hold 720 inmates when it opened in 1964. It now routinely holds 1,700.

The crowded conditions can threaten the safety of inmates as well as corrections officers assigned to watch over them and break up 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.

Inmate numbers have been boosted by Washington’s three-strikes law and changes in sentencing laws for some firearms-related crimes, said Department of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis.

The department projects a need for prison space for 900 new inmates — an increase of nearly 6 percent — by 2016. That’s the date the department had planned to open a new prison in Western Washington, but that’s been put off until 2018 at least, because of a tight budget, Lewis said.

“The early caseload forecast didn’t indicate that we would need more beds by July,” Lewis said.

Changes in the prison system have created an inmate population that 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,” said Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner.

That increases pressure on guards.

“Every day I’m getting emails from staff who are concerned about safety,” said Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 3,600 corrections officers.