Monroe prison’s budget could be on chopping block

There’s enough minutia in the House Democrats’ budget to give lawmakers plausible confusability on exactly what havoc they may wreak with taxpayer dollars.

No member can be faulted for not fully understanding the use of every penny and the meaning of every proviso in the 472-page spending pla

n.

Yet in 2011 there should not be any confusion on what they want to do about protecting corrections officers and protecting the public.

But there seems to be: On the one hand, in response to the murder of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl, they’re spending $6 million to improve workers’ safety with body alarms, panic buttons and beefed up staffing. On the other hand, in response to the deficit, lawmakers are cutting $26 million from the Department of Corrections budget and directing it be done by releasing prisoners early and laying off corrections officers.

It will take a lot of inmates and a lot of prison employees to reach that figure.

The House budget staff calculates the average daily population in the prison system must drop by around 800 inmates over the next two years. That may mean as many as 1,390 people get out early; those convicted of sex offenses and violent crimes will not be eligible. And they calculate a net of 395 full-time positions will need to be eliminated as well to attain the target.

There’s only one way to do this — shut something down.

Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said he’ll have to look at closing either Washington State Reformatory in Monroe or the old Main Institution at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

They’re the oldest and most expensive units in the state’s penal system with each now housing in the neighborhood of 800 inmates.

“I’m not saying I want to close either of them. I’m not saying I am willing to close them,” he said.

Vail, Gov. Chris Gregoire, prosecutors, sheriffs, police chiefs and corrections workers are opposing the early release provision in the House budget. They may have to take their concerns to senators who may put something similar in their budget.

“We are fully supporting the safety enhancements,” said Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “We don’t like it juxtaposed with letting those prisoners out. We don’t see that it has to be a situation of either/or.”

This is going to be an ideological, political and emotional fight.

Washington has one of the lowest incarceration rates of any state. There are Democratic lawmakers concerned too much is spent on people unnecessarily locked up for nonviolent offenses.

They may be willing to lower the target from $26 million but not zero it out. They made cuts in the last budget which forced closure of three corrections centers — McNeil Island in Pierce County, Ahtanum View in Yakima and Pine Lodge women’s facility in Spokane — and from their perspective things have gone OK.

For Gregoire, this will test her ability to block early release and steer budget writers to alternative sources of savings. If she can’t, she’ll be called on to exercise her rarely used veto pen.

Meanwhile, the slaying and memory of Biendl will be an unspoken constant as they try to figure out how in this budget to honor her and not hurt anyone else.

There’s nothing confusing about that.

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

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