An idea percolating in the Legislature could help relieve two lingering problems for the state: Overcrowded prisons and mentally ill prisoners.
As part of a proposed capital budget, which goes toward construction projects and grants, some lawmakers would like to pursue a new state prison designed solely to house prisoners suffering from mental illness. The capital budget earmarks $5.3 million to plan for the facility — which would be located in south Thurston County, would eventually cost $189 million to construct and would open by 2020 at the earliest. “We have about 3,500 offenders in the system with a mental health diagnosis,” Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said. “And while we have some pockets of programming, there’s not a facility that provides the full continuum.”
In other words, people sentenced to the state prison system often languish without receiving the necessary mental health care. Unless directed to one of the state’s full-service mental health facilities, prisoners might receive only cursory diagnosis and treatment. This is not specifically related to a 2014 ruling from the state Supreme Court that ordered an end to the practice of “psychiatric boarding” — the housing of mentally ill patients in hospitals unequipped to serve their needs — but it is related to the larger issue of how Washington deals with mental illness.
When it comes to prisoners, a report for the state Office of Financial Management last year found that nearly 5,000 of Washington’s 17,000 prison inmates required some form of mental health treatment. As the study surmised: “From a system point of view, jails and prisons are missing effective treatment, behavior management programs, and trained staff to work with mental illness. The seriously mentally ill have access to some services, but supply is limited and little service is available to the moderately mentally ill.” Concentrating services for mentally ill prisoners in one primary location could prove cost-effective and could better serve those requiring assistance. Most important, it could better prepare prisoners for their eventual return to society. A specialty prison providing effective psychiatric care could greatly increase the chances of a former inmate becoming a contributing member of their community.
Which brings us to the other issue involved in the proposal for building a new prison — overcrowding. During the Great Recession, the Legislature closed three of the state’s prisons in a cost-cutting move. Now, estimates are that an additional 1,000 beds will be needed for medium-security prisoners by 2020, and the 700-bed proposal for Thurston County could help mitigate that pressure. Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, told The Bellingham Herald that if lawmakers approve a new prison, he wants a facility that can turn lives around, not “just another box to throw people away in.”
That philosophy is crucial to the notion of corrections. While punitive measures and the protection of law-abiding citizens are essential to the prison system in this country, some changes are required. The United States has the highest prison population in the world, as well as the largest number of prisoners per capita among developed nations. That suggests that something in our system is haywire; that suggests that building more boxes in which to throw people away is not a solution.
A specialty prison designed for prisoners in need of mental health care could be a wise investment on many levels — for both the short-term and the future.