Lack of Employees, Not Space, Is Overcrowding State Prisons

DOC can't fill positions to open the $39 million facility in Monroe.

Stepping through parallel chain-link fences bolstered with rows of curlicue razor wire and electronic sensors, Gerald Isham shows off a new prison unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex. As prisons go, it's a beaut. The squat, gray concrete segregation and "intensive management" unit--designed for inmates who need to be kept apart from the general prison population for the short- or long-term--has a state-of-the-art computer system to keep detailed records on prisoners, doors that open electronically, and 100 cameras. "There's not a blind spot in here--except for the bathrooms," says Isham, the unit's supervisor. Following the latest environmental standards, it uses roof water to flush the toilets and its exterior is composed partly of recycled materials.

The gray-haired and jeans-clad Isham says he hopes to give the difficult prisoners housed in such a facility "lots of love so they can feel better about themselves" and be reintegrated with the general population. As such, he says he is proudest of the way the unit's individual visiting rooms (with panes to separate inmates from their loved ones) can double as classrooms. The phones in each room can be jointly connected, allowing up to eight inmates at the same time to listen to, say, a basic education teacher.

There's no one either teaching or visiting as he walks past the rooms today, though. In fact, all 200 one-person cells—each with a concrete slab that serves as a bed, a concrete desk and stool, and a metal toilet—are completely empty, save the orange jumpsuits and red towels piled up in storage. It's been that way since April.

It's an odd time to find an empty prison, never mind one that is brand-new and built at a cost of $39 million. The state Department of Corrections has said it is so short of inmate beds that in the spring it began releasing parole violators for lack of a place to put them. (Gov. Christine Gregoire put a stop to the policy, saying she was "outraged.") Meanwhile, the department has sent 1,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities and another 800 to county jails.

Explaining why the unit is nonetheless empty, Monroe Superintendent Kenneth Quinn says, "It's a staffing issue." He says he hasn't had the 48 employees needed to run the place.

Even leaving aside expansion projects like the one in Monroe, the DOC has between 800 and 900 vacancies, according to its head of recruiting, Lorna Ovena. It needs about an equal number of new staffers (corrections officers, nurses, counselors, and others) to fill the new buildings.

The problem, it seems, is the war in Iraq and a strong local economy. "The staffing shortage is the result of nothing less than a perfect storm, combining a low unemployment rate with the fact that a large number of our Department of Corrections members are serving in the military," reads a July 5 letter to the governor from Teamsters Local 117, which represents employees at all the state's prisons. Not only has the war effort drawn existing prison staffers, but it has dried up a traditional source of recruiting: officers leaving the military. "Guess what?" asks Michael Beranbaum, director of Local 117's corrections and law-enforcement division. "Nobody's getting out of the military."

To entice more potential guards, the DOC this summer handed out what Beranbaum calls "probably the largest raises this group has ever seen." Corrections officers at facilities where big expansions are happening received a 23 percent increase. At those facilities, including Monroe, starting officers now make almost $40,000. Beranbaum contends pay is still about 25 percent below the pay at city and county jails.

The department also ran a major media campaign earlier this year. "Opportunity doesn't come knocking often, but right now the door is wide open," says a radio ad. In a recruiting video on the DOC Web site, a corrections officer says: "These next few minutes could change your life....You'll find Department of Corrections facilities near major cities...and in picturesque smaller communities on the Pacific coast and in Washington's interior....There's a place in the Department of Corrections to suit your career goals and personal lifestyle!"

"Gov. Gregoire recognizes there is a gap in recruitment goals for expansion projects," says spokesperson Lars Erickson in an e-mail. He says the governor has instructed the department to "think outside the box."

Monroe Superintendent Quinn says he expects to have enough staff by September to open half of his new unit, with the other half phased in sometime later.

Construction on the building actually finished in March 2006, Quinn says. In September of that year, he moved in offenders from another unit that was undergoing renovation. When they moved out four months ago, nobody took their place. In addition to a shortage of employees, there have been other issues, too, like refinement of the heating and cooling system, Quinn says.

If the new building at Monroe had been accepting inmates, it's unclear how much it would have helped solve the DOC's bed crisis. The department says that the super-high-security unit is inappropriate for most of the inmates it needs to house. Single-cell, heavily guarded, and expensive to run, the facility is designed for the toughest inmates, not parole violators, for instance. Nevertheless, the Teamsters' Beranbaum contends that filling the unit would likely free up beds in other units that would be appropriate for those requiring space.

In any case, he says, that unit might not be the only one in the state sitting empty for a spell. He believes the same fate looms over even bigger expansion projects at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, which is expected to finish construction of 890 beds this fall (most for the highest-security offenders still in the general population), and the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, near the Tri-Cities, which is adding 2,050 minimum-security beds for a scheduled opening date of December 2008.

"We don't believe they'll be able to hire staff for them," Beranbaum says.

Coyote Ridge Superintendent Scott Frakes, who will start filling 450 new positions next spring for the state's biggest prison expansion, disagrees. "I believe we are going to have advantages," he says, citing the lower cost of living in Eastern Washington. Even so, he says, noting the prison's distance from population centers, "it's going to be challenging."

In Walla Walla, where the Washington State Penitentiary is located, the cost of living may not be as high as in Western Washington, but it's higher than it used to be, due in part to the booming wine industry. With the scheduled opening date of its expansion only months away, and some 300 staffers to hire, Ruben Cedeno, the department's deputy secretary for prisons, says: "We're sweating it a little." While he says the department is making progress in filling those positions, he adds, "I wouldn't be able to make a statement about whether we'll be able to open on time or not."

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