Reforms appear to make jail safer, more cost-efficient

EVERETT — Reforms aimed at making the Snohomish County Jail safer for inmates and staff also appear to be helping bring spending under control.

The jail ended 2013 having overspent nearly $830,000 on daily operations, with an additional $2.8 million hit from a labor contract settlement. That followed a 2012 performance during which spending was about $2 million above budget.

In sharp contrast, the county’s books show the jail in 2014 not only operated within its roughly $100 million annual budget, but it ended the year with a cushion of about $35,000, said Joanie Fadden, finance manager at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s very close, but we are under budget,” she said last week.

The jail is run by the sheriff’s office. When Sheriff Ty Trenary took over in July 2013 he inherited a building plagued by questions over a string of inmate deaths and spiraling overtime costs.

Trenary responded by consulting outside experts, who encouraged him to dial back on bookings and to focus attention on improving the jail’s ability to monitor inmate health and safety.

He ended contracts with neighboring communities, including some out-of-county cities, who were sending the jail their problem inmates. The sheriff also initiated policies refusing to house people for nonviolent misdemeanors or whose medical condition simply can’t be adequately managed within the lockup.

The jail remains expensive and risky, but the people running the operation have “created a new normal at the jail,” Trenary said.

The focus is on safe, humane treatment of detainees, order and efficiency, said Tony Aston, who recently was promoted to corrections bureau chief after spending close to a year working to institute reforms with Rob Beidler, who is now Trenary’s undersheriff.

The booking area at the jail used to be bedlam with agitated inmates often parked in holding cells while decisions were reached on where to place them. Some people spent days in limbo.

New procedures have been instituted. Inmates are no longer admitted without first being screened by nurses to determine if they can be safely detained and brought through an airport-style body scanner to search for drugs and other contraband.

By adjusting schedules, there are now adequate staff on duty to swiftly gather information necessary to decide where inmates should be placed within the jail.

“This is a very safe and structured environment right now,” Aston said last week as he observed the booking area. A group of inmates, some obviously upset but calm, waited their turn with classification screeners.

Overtime remains a significant cost of doing business at the jail, but unlike past years it is no longer being used to patch over problems.

Many of the improvements have been suggested by the corrections deputies closest to the work, said Maj. Jamie Kane. He recently was promoted after years working in close contact with inmates, including the risky business of transporting them to and from court hearings.

For example, schedules and assignments have been tweaked to free up a corrections deputy to move about within the jail, particularly where the most challenging inmates are housed: those living with mental illness or undergoing withdrawals from drug addiction.

Heroin use is the biggest driver in that challenge, with the areas of the jail set aside for medically vulnerable inmates routinely running at up to 140 percent of capacity, Kane said.

Most of the 13 deaths in the jail since 2010 involved inmates with serious health problems, often linked to longtime drug and alcohol abuse, records show. The county’s jail deaths are consistent with what is seen at similar-sized lockups around the country, according to a federal Department of Justice statistician who tracks inmate deaths.

Changes also have been made to enhance security at the jail, Aston said. The body scanner paid off the first day by intercepting prescription pain medication an inmate was attempting to smuggle inside with the idea of profiting from her stay. Volunteers in jail outreach programs also have been required to undergo more rigorous screening. And a better system has been put in place to manage inmate property, long a source of headaches and claims against the county.

Now, as part of the booking process, an inmate’s belongings are inventoried, confirmed with the owner’s signature, and placed in a plastic bag. The bag is then shrink-wrap sealed as they look on, Aston said.

The materials are then placed in a bin with the inmates’ tracking numbers and locked away for return after their stay.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews

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