Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Budget cuts mean prison overcrowding in Washington

The state of Washington is facing a quite a dilemma. The Department of Corrections must figure out how to handle the projected need for 900 new prison beds by 2016 — the date that DOC had planned to open a new prison in Western Washington. With the state facing a $1 billion budget shortfall, the opening has been put off until at least 2018, according to the Seattle Times.

Washington state currently has 16,000 inmates, so the expected influx of 900 more represents a 5.6 percent increase.

Major overcrowding hasn't been an issue for the Department of Corrections in past years because the agency was able to keep up with the projected demand. In 2009, a minimum-security work camp in Franklin County was expanded into the state's largest prison, housing 2,500 inmates. But facing deep budget cuts, DOC reversed its path and started closing facilities — including the 135-year-old McNeil Island Corrections Center, which cost the system 1,200 inmate bed

Each week, about 150 inmates arrive at the Washington Corrections Center for processing before they're assigned a permanent home in the state prison system.

According to the Times, most are destined to spend their first days in prison as "rugs," the term used by inmates and corrections officers to describe offenders who have to sleep on the concrete floor of cells because of overcrowding. The newcomers bed down on thin rubber mats spread out between the cell's toilet and sink, next to two inmates in bunks.

The problem with overcrowding is best exemplified at the Washington Corrections Center, with an average daily population routinely nearing 1,700 inmates. When the prison opened in 1964, it was designed to hold 720 inmates, reported the Times.

General population, where inmates are locked up 22 hours a day, often houses everyone from high-profile killers to sex offenders to members of other gangs. The prison's intensive management unit, or solitary confinement for the most dangerous, is always full.

"It's tense in here every day," Associate Superintendent Dan White told the Times. "The staff need to have good communication skills to put a lid on things, especially when you're talking about a cell with three guys."

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