The Monroe Correctional Complex. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

The Monroe Correctional Complex. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

With fewer inmates, state prepares to close prison units

In Monroe, two minimum security units will shut down soon, followed by the Washington State Reformatory.

OLYMPIA — State corrections officials are beginning this month to consolidate partially filled housing units at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe as part of a plan to deal with thousands of empty beds in correctional facilities statewide.

By mid-August, housing units at seven prisons, including two minimum security units in the Monroe Correctional Complex, are to be closed.

And eventually, at the 111-year-old reformatory, one of five units in the Monroe complex, all living units will be shuttered under a plan released Monday by Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange. The capacity of that unit is 720 inmates. The entire complex has a capacity of 2,400.

“Our criteria for decision-making are based on finding unit closures and consolidations that have the least impact on staff, incarcerated persons and their families, and minimize negative effects on programs, education, healthcare, and other critical services,” Strange wrote in a letter sent Monday to lawmakers, staff, advocates, prisoners and their families.

On Wednesday, corrections officials said that while closure of units at the reformatory is proposed, a final decision has not been made.

The Department of Corrections is wrestling with a shrinking prisoner population and pressure from the Legislature and governor to pare spending by $80 million.

As of Monday, roughly 4,000 of the state’s 17,000 prison beds were empty. Part of the reason is that local courts sentenced fewer people to prison terms during the pandemic. Plus, more than 1,000 incarcerated men and women got released under a state Supreme Court order to ease crowding to reduce prisoners’ risk of exposure to the potentially deadly coronavirus.

And a ruling by the same high court earlier this year struck down the state’s longstanding drug possession law, allowing for the release of dozens convicted under that now-invalidated statute.

Looking ahead, it is anticipated another 3,000 beds could open up in the next two years as the state expands eligibility for its Graduated Reentry Program, which lets eligible prisoners serve the final months of their sentences under home detention.

At the end of May, corrections officials surprised lawmakers, corrections workers and incarcerated people and their families when they revealed that 18 units containing 3,378 beds were being eyed for closure. Eight of those, with 1,403 beds, were in the Monroe prison.

The revelation elicited strong and widespread concern, leading Strange to hit the pause button, then move in a slightly different direction.

“As we examine the information and listen to constituents, one thing is clear; the issues are complex, individualized, and required more time to consider impacts, mitigate them, and discover good solutions,” Strange wrote in the letter sent Monday.

Her solution is a “phased approach” that could lead to more crowding in some living units and fewer closures overall.

It starts this month with consolidation of two less-than-full living units at the Washington State Reformatory, as well as units at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. In each case, some prisoners could be moved to create fully occupied housing units. This could lead to having two beds in cells where now there is one, according to Strange. Staff is redeployed but not reduced, she said.

Closures are divided into two groups.

The first phase — to be completed by mid-August — involves shutting down units where the impacts on employees and prisoners is considered minimal. Statewide, a total of eight units, including two minimum security ones at Monroe containing roughly 240 beds, are on the list.

A second phase of closures is contemplated but no timeline has been set. The reformatory and units in four other prisons are on that list. Because greater impacts are anticipated — including the possible transfer of individuals to new locations — Strange said she wants to spend more time discussing the moves.

“Addressing the issue of empty beds across the system and thus reducing spending by $80 million is a big task and one with serious consequences if we do not achieve these closures to meet our legislative appropriation,” Strange wrote. “However, please know that I am deeply committed to supporting our staff, our incarcerated persons and their families, and the communities which support them throughout this process.”

Not everyone is convinced.

“My initial reaction is that they’re disguising cost-cutting measures by wrapping them in language of reentry and rehabilitation,” said Tomas Keen, a prisoner who lives in one of the reformatory units targeted for consolidation. ”It’s as if they expect me to believe that packing prisoners sardine style in these tiny cells is somehow going to help us all rehabilitate.”

Keen, 32, entered the state prison system in 2010 after a conviction for first-degree assault. He is serving a 20-year-sentence and has been at the reformatory since 2016.

In an interview by email, he said that since he arrived at Monroe he’s earned an associate of arts degree through University Beyond Bars, a college-in-prison program, become active in social justice issues and reset his outlook on life.

“The benefits of rehabilitation are worth the investment. This place and its unique culture — a culture that promotes safe prisons and safe communities — should not be scrapped just to make decimal points align on a budget,” he said. “I’m telling you from personal experience that the likelihood of reproducing a similar culture at a different place is minute. And the benefits of having a culture like this are not worth gambling on the misguided belief that it can be re-created elsewhere.”

Family members and individuals who provide services in that unit also weighed in.

“While we all support closing prisons and reducing the prison population, we are gravely concerned about the implications and unintended consequences that will result from the deepest cuts in the state at WSRU,” they wrote in a June 9 letter to Strange, referring to the Monroe prison.

“Closing WSRU and dispersing its population to prisons in remote rural areas across the state with less access to programming and family is not in the interest of the DOC’s mission to promote rehabilitation and community reentry,” continued the letter signed by a dozen organizations and more than 100 individuals.

Among the signers was Tomas Keen’s mother, Lydia, a resident of Longview.

“I oppose the closing of WSRU because it has helped change the trajectory of my son’s life,” she wrote in an email. “He was involved in white supremacy gangs shortly after he came to prison. He got in trouble numerous times. After arriving at WSRU he was able to focus on how to change his life.”

Christopher Blackwell, a prisoner at the Monroe Correctional Complex, said the closure would put a strain on prisoners who are forced to move far away from their families. His mother and wife both live in the Seattle metropolitan area, he said, and he would rarely get to see them if he was relocated to a prison farther away.

“We could get sent anywhere across the state,” Blackwell said in a phone interview. “Family members who were minutes away could now be four to five hours away. Unfortunately, my mom just bought a house in Monroe. She’s not able to pick up and relocate if I’m moved.”

Blackwell said he predicts the Monroe prison will eventually have to reverse the closure plans once the courts catch up on a backlog of cases. There are vacancies at the prisons, he said, due to a slowdown in the prosecution system because of pandemic safety precautions the courts adopted over a year ago.

On July 7, a top prison system leader insisted in a letter to Lydia Keen that the concerns of prisoners’ family members won’t be overlooked.

“While the department supports reentry, we are very sensitive to the impact this shift may have on the incarcerated individuals as well as the staff,” wrote Michael Obenland, deputy director of state prisons. “We are working hard on how to lessen the impacts in our facilities as changes are implemented.”

This story has been modified to reflect the fact only living units within the Washington State Reformatory will be shut down — not other services there.

Herald reporter Ellen Dennis contributed to this story.

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; @dospueblos

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