In Our View: Efficiencies Behind Bars

Far from just throwing away the key, state prison system considers changes

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Washington state's corrections system is undergoing a fundamental change, forced by a succession of state funding crises but also now fueled by new philosophies about incarceration.The budget component of this issue demands efficiencies. Prisons must be operated with a maximum bang for taxpayer buck. The humanitarian component demands effectiveness. If there are better ways to rehabilitate people — accompanied by the agreement that some criminals are beyond correction — then prisons must pursue those productive corrective programs.

Among changes in recent years, three prisons have been closed in Washington state in the relentless quest for efficiencies. But some other continuing aspects of this evolution remain in place. Leadership, for example. State Corrections Secretary Bernard Warner (appointed in 2011, he moved here from California) will continue in that role. Jay Inslee, who will be sworn in today as governor, has said of Warner: "In a relatively short time, Bernie has made significant improvements in prison safety, in effective use of resources, and in building creative partnerships that help both offenders and the community."

The overall impact of this evolution is significant in Clark County, where Larch Corrections Center has been repeatedly targeted for reductions or closure because of state funding woes, but which remains open. The minimum-security prison tucked away in the Cascade foothills has provided numerous service programs (such as fighting forest fires) that benefit our community. In other prisons around the state, corrections officials are researching ways to reduce solitary confinement, which costs three times as much as general-custody imprisonment. And if those efficiencies can be achieved, perhaps the savings can protect rehabilitation programs such as those at Larch.

A recent Seattle Times story by Jonathan Martin described how prison officials at Clallam Bay have "slowed a revolving door of hardened inmates who returned, again and again, to isolation" by using a new Intensive Transition Program. Prisoners gradually earn more freedoms through classroom instruction, starting with stark conditions described in the Times story: "a row of steel cages, inmates chained to floor-mounted chain hooks beneath metal desks." It's not a cure-all, but through subsequent levels of the program, 107 of 131 participants graduated and have not returned to solitary confinement.

And those results led Assistant Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke to proclaim that "… to look at it through the rearview mirror, we wonder why we didn't do this 10 years ago."

The Times also reported that, in 2005, 40 states had at least 25,000 prisoners on lockdown 23 hours a day. But a powerful combination of litigation and budget constraints has reduced that number considerably, and today in Washington, only about 400 of the state's 17,500 prisoners are in isolation units such as death row and protective custody.

Again, this is an evolving science, and even experts have much to learn about who, when and how a prisoner can be incarcerated more efficiently — or released — without endangering himself, other prisoners or the public. We realize an unknown percentage of inmates cannot be rehabilitated, but at least solid research is yielding a few answers.

Better prisons have become one more silver lining in the Great Recession. We wish all of this could have been figured out without pressure from the worst economic crisis in seven decades, but the potential improvements are encouraging nonetheless.