Monroe on Prison Chopping Block

Corrections says it has to cut the shrinking system somewhere.

A team of consultants tasked with recommending prison closures visited the Monroe Correctional Complex yesterday. "I know their specific focus is on the Washington State Reformatory," says Superintendent Scott Frakes, referring to the 740-bed, medium-security unit that is one of five within the 2,500-bed campus. He notes that one thing the consulting firm, Christopher Murray and Associates, is taking into account is the physical condition of prison properties. The 100-year Reformatory, a surprisingly elegant building with a brick façade and recessed Ionic columns, is the oldest facility on the site. It's also the nearest prison of its kind to Seattle. At the direction of the cash-strapped legislature, the state Office of Financial Management hired Christopher Murray to come up with a plan for cutting 1,500 prison beds throughout the state. The firm is visiting other institutions too, and has said three besides the Reformatory are now on its short list: the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, the McNeil Island Corrections Center near Tacoma, and Pine Lodge Corrections Center for women. Community officials in Walla Walla are sounding the alarm about the economic consequences of a prison closure. Frakes, too, is taking the possibility seriously. "I have to be a little bit concerned," he says, noting that the Reformatory employs 200 staffers, houses the complex's only hospital, and is conveniently located for friends and family who visit. In addition, the Reformatory has 1,000 community volunteers who staff an array of programs—"more than any other male prison I've ever worked at," says Frakes, a 27-year veteran of the state Department of Corrections. There are programs for African-American inmates, alcoholics, and prisoners who want to take college-level classes. One program even has inmates working on remedial literacy read to dogs. Carol Estes, who runs Monroe's University Behind Bars program (which offers college credit), is similarly concerned. "The Washington State Reformatory is the closest thing we have to a bright spot in the Washington prison system," she says, adding that prisoners who are eligible for transfer to a minimum-security prison because of good behavior don't want to leave. "I constantly have men coming up to me saying, 'The only way for me to stay is to commit an infraction.'" She frets that inmates will become estranged from their families, particularly their children, should the Reformatory close. McNeil Island Corrections Center is not that far, but Estes says the ferry ride required to get there makes it a burdensome trip.

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