Monroe Correctional Complex to lessen security for some

MONROE — In a first for the state, the Monroe Correctional Complex will begin housing a group of mentally ill offenders next month in its lowest security setting.

By April, 90 prisoners may move into a renovated minimum security building. The group will further cement the prison’s role as the state’s top destination for mentally ill convicts.

The change at the 365-acre complex was triggered in large part by the budget. Gov. Chris Gregoire directed the state Department of Corrections to close prisons this year, potentially saving millions.

The program at Monroe will help the state juggle inmates as other prisons close. It also will bring more of the state’s mental health operations under one roof.

“This is a first for us,” Monroe prison superintendent Scott Frakes said. “That’s pretty big.”

Some correctional officers and inmates are concerned about safety as part of the change, according to Zoe Leonard, head of mental health operations at the prison. They shouldn’t be, she said.

The prison is holding meetings to discuss the change. Staff and prisoners alike will learn that most of the mentally ill inmates are within two years of release and none have red flags for violent behavior.

The inmates will take medication and go to counseling for conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. Some prisoners receiving treatment for schizophrenia will qualify for the minimum security unit.*

“The camp” is what many prison officials call Monroe’s minimum security unit, where inmates live in one-story wooden buildings that look more like military barracks than cell blocks.

While ringed by razor wire, the unit has a more relaxed feel than other wings. Inmates walk across green lawns on their way to breakfast. They are required to hold a job in the prison. They spend idle time watching TV or, in one unique program, carving totem poles.

Right now, the state doesn’t send mentally ill prisoners to a setting like that, because distributing medication in a prison must be closely monitored. Instead, the men go to more secure settings in Monroe, Walla Walla or on McNeil Island.

Changes at McNeil Island Corrections Center, however, are part of the state’s plan to cut 1,580 beds from the prison system, and potentially save $65 million over four years.

Supporters of cutting prison beds point to projections that indicate a drop in the prison population. Prisons may wind up with more space than they need in coming years.

Union officials and some lawmakers have faulted the decision to mothball prisons, with both worried the projections will be off.

“I didn’t support the move last year, but I have to deal with the outcome right now,” said state Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe.

That outcome means another spot dedicated to mentally ill convicts in Pearson’s town. He’s braced for the change.

“Considering the circumstances, I think it’s a good thing, and I think Monroe can handle it,” he said.

The prison has a track record for treating mentally ill inmates. It’s home to the special offenders unit, a 400-person setting that houses the state’s largest group of mentally ill inmates.

Changes at the minimum security wing at Monroe are happening quickly.

On Jan. 5, the superintendent received official word of the switch. He was told he had two months to renovate a building, making room for both the mentally ill inmates and a 10-person clinical staff.

“Fast and furious is a fair description,” Frakes said of the construction, under way now.

The staff will include two psychologists, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, six mental health counselors and an administrative assistant.

One correction officer also will be added to each shift, to address security concerns.

Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer for the Teamsters 117, represents correction officers and mental health staff in Monroe. Union members have not lodged complaints about the change, she said.

As for the staffing, she called it “at least initially sufficient.”

“You don’t know until you’ve actually seen it in action,” Thompson said.

The minimum security setting could help prepare prisoners for the free world as they near their release, according to Dan Pacholke, Corrections Department deputy director.

He said the idea of a minimum security wing for the mentally ill gained traction because of changes dictated by Olympia.

“We took advantage of the opportunity and said, ‘How could we do mental health different?’” he said.

Upon release, the prisoners will not necessarily walk out onto the streets of Monroe. Most will be sent to the county where they first committed a crime, prison officials said.

Ultimately, between 94 and 97 percent of inmates leave prison, Frakes said. The minimum security setting may help ease that return, helping the men avoid a culture shock.

“I’m a big believer in transitionally working back into the community,” Frakes said.

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455,

* Correction: This story has been corrected since it was first posted to accurately state what category of prisoners will qualify for the minimum-security unit.

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