Monroe prison’s new wing ready for state’s worst

MONROE — With a new $39.5 million, maximum-security unit complete, the Monroe prison complex soon will start taking in the most violent offenders from the state’s prison system.

State corrections officials on Tuesday unveiled the new 200-bed unit that was completed earlier this year. Half of the unit is already housing dangerous offenders. The other half is set to open by Jan. 8.

“This is essentially a jail in the prison,” said Mike Kenney, state Department of Corrections prison administrator.

Inmates at the Monroe prison complex who get involved in a fight or possess drugs or weapons will be sent to the maximum-security unit, said Howard Anderson, associate superintendent of security operations at the prison complex. The 77,000-square-foot unit also will be used to house inmates who are threatened by other inmates.

With about 2,500 offenders, the prison complex is now the largest among the state’s 15 prisons. In the past, the Monroe prison complex used to send dangerous offenders to other prisons, because it had only 80 beds to isolate and lock them up.

With the new 200-bed unit, other prisons in the state are expected to send those troubled offenders to the new unit in Monroe, officials said.

“The difference we can make is that we get to control many offenders,” said Ken Quinn, the prison complex’s superintendent.

The new unit is part of a statewide prison expansion that aims to add 3,500 beds by 2009. In addition to the Monroe prison, six other prisons are scheduled to expand over the next two years. The Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla is set to add 594 beds, which could give it an inmate population as large as the Monroe Correctional Complex in 2008.

Monroe Mayor Donnetta Walser said she toured the new unit at the Monroe prison complex earlier this year.

“It’s pretty state-of-the-art for safety,” Walser said. “Then, I know very little about prisons. They seemed to have looked at all the issues very carefully.”

The prison complex is also the biggest employer in Monroe, a city of about 16,000 people. About 1,100 people, including many Monroe residents, work at the complex; about 900 people in the community volunteer in many activities to help inmates interact with people outside the prison complex.

“I look forward to seeing more jobs for people in the area,” Monroe City Councilman Mitch Ruth said.

That the maximum-security unit has been added doesn’t concern Ruth, who had worked at the complex for about 15 years. But he added: “If they don’t manage it or train staff appropriately, it could be a disaster.”

With the expansions, the state is projected to be 4,000 beds short in 2017, according to the Department of Corrections. The number of inmates continues to grow rapidly. More buildings are needed to house inmates, but that won’t solve the underlying issue, Kenney said.

“The solution is to address this problem at the root. That is people returning to prisons,” he said.

Few inmates are sentenced to life in prison. In Washington, about 37 inmates out of 100 return to prison within five years after their release, Kenney said. That’s below the national average of 51.8 percent recidivism.

The solution is to provide good education and job training for inmates, Kenney said.

The new maximum security unit, called intensive management unit, is the latest addition to the Monroe prison complex. The prison has four other units: the sex offender’s unit, the special offender unit for inmates with mental issues, the minimum security unit and the Washington State Reformatory for other inmates. The prison became the state’s largest in October 2000, said David Jansen, Department of Corrections capital programs administrator.

Half of the unit is already in operation mainly to discipline dangerous offenders, Anderson said. Offenders spend 23 hours a day locked in small cells and leave only for showers and exercise. The cell measures 6 feet by 12 feet; it has minimum necessities: a concrete desk and chair, a thin mattress on concrete, a mirror, a toilet and sink. That section of the unit is intended to hold inmates for a few months at a time.

The other half of the unit is expected to open in January to lock up dangerous inmates for longer periods, Anderson said. If behavior improves, inmates could be allowed to watch television and listen to a radio.

The unit has a cutting-edge surveillance system, and 50 correctional officers are expected to keep the unit safe 24 hours a day.

“Everything is very, very controlled here,” said Anderson, who has worked about 30 years at the prison.

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or ynohara@heraldnet.com.

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