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News / Clark County News

Size does matter to Clark County Jail commission

24-member panel tries to determine how big new site should be

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter
Published: November 23, 2018, 6:02am

In May, a blue-ribbon commission appointed to evaluate Clark County’s options for its aging and outmoded jail reached an agreement on a key issue: The jail needs to be replaced or substantially renovated.

“The big issue now is what is the number (of future inmates) we need to plan for,” said Craig Pridemore, the CEO of Columbia River Mental Health Services who serves as the commission’s chair.

But attempts to answer that question have raised new ones for the commission, which was supposed to wrap up its work this month. Now faced with new unanswered questions about how to replace or upgrade a facility to serve the county for the next 30 to 50 years, the commission has moved to extend its work until spring.

Early this year, Clark County assembled the 24-member commission, comprised of government officials, community groups and others. It was formed in response to a study from a consulting firm that concluded that the jail, which opened in 1984, had become overcrowded and ill-suited to meet modern correctional practices.

The study found that the jail would need to grow to 366,564 square feet to meet industry best practices and accommodate 1,109 to 1,260 beds by 2036. The jail currently has a 793-bed capacity and 124,318 square feet of space (excluding its work center).

The county has been incarcerating fewer people and the sheriff’s office has introduced re-entry programs that have shown success in helping keep inmates from returning to jail.

Pridemore said these factors have complicated addressing the jail’s future needs. Will these programs meant to keep inmates from being reincarcerated be so successful that the county can get by with a smaller jail? What if those assumptions are wrong and the jail is too small? Alternatively, what if it’s too big?

Sizing up the situation

“At the end of the day, we need to make sure that any remodeling or rebuilding of the jail reflects the actual need or capacity and that’s really the key problem statement here,” said Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik, a member of the commission. “We need to be really mindful we’re not going to create a Wapato situation where we create this big thing we don’t need and we can’t staff.”

Golik was referring to the Wapato Detention Facility, a long-running boondoggle for Oregon’s Multnomah County. The county opened the $58.4 million facility in North Portland in 2004 to keep up with crime and population growth. But the county found itself without the money to operate it and mothballed it before it was ever used.

Predicting the future population of the jail isn’t straightforward. Although Clark County’s population has increased, it’s incarcerating fewer people and is doing so at rates lower than the state and federal levels. According to county numbers, in 2010 Clark County incarcerated 161 people for every 100,000 people. It 2016 it was 155 per 100,000 people.

Golik said that there’s less crowding at the jail as a result of changes to booking decisions at the jail and contracts with the state Department of Corrections to hold inmates. More recently, figures provided to the commission show the number of inmates at the jail decreasing. In January 2017, the main population at the jail (excluding the work center) was 637. As of July 2018, that number was 583.

There could be more changes that reduce the jail’s population. Golik mentioned that California recently passed a reform to its cash bail system. He said that similar reforms could be on their way in Washington that could impact the jail’s population.

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Kate Budd, executive director of the Council for the Homeless and member of the commission, also pointed to preventive measures that keep people from incarceration, such as therapeutic courts.

She said that if there are more local investments in social services and affordable housing, there will be fewer demands on the jail. However, she said that it’s unclear if local governments will make these investments.

“If we can provide interventions, then we should not need an enormous jail and we won’t see the incremental increase of those in jail,” she said.

Design

Golik said that there is agreement that the facility needs to be upgraded so that inmates are held in a more humane setting.

“A lot of the conversation has been about improving access to mental health and chemical dependency and services and also transitioning (inmates) back out to the community in hopes that would be a contribution in reducing recidivism,” said Pridemore. According to numbers provided to the commission, the rate of inmates taking psychotropic medications since summer of 2016 has hovered between 40 percent to just under half of inmates.

Corrections Chief Ric Bishop said Clark County has introduced re-entry programs at the jail and has bought into the idea of direct supervision of inmates. The model, which has been widely adopted by correctional facilities, involves one or two officers directly supervising inmates.

The model has been touted for its operational efficiencies and being more conducive for re-entry programs. However, the linear design of the Clark County Jail has prevented this model from being completely adopted.

Kimberly Mosolf, an attorney with the jails project at Disability Rights Washington who sits on the commission, said that inmates in jails have higher rates of mental illness and cognitive disabilities.

“Along with that comes an emphasis on, first and foremost, that the jail is fulfilling its constitutional obligation to people with disabilities,” she said. That means that jails need to be physically structured with this population in mind, she said.

In response to a lawsuit filed by ACLU of Washington, Disability Rights Washington and others, a federal judge found in 2015 that the state violated the constitutional rights of individuals with mental illness by keeping them incarcerated weeks or months while awaiting competency services.

Budd said that a redesigned jail could be a great opportunity to engage incarcerated people with behavioral and physical health challenges and direct them toward services.

Budd, who said that approach could also benefit the homeless, said the commission has been receptive to the idea.

Paying for it all

The consultants hired by the county presented three plans to upgrade the jail. The “preferred” master plan would cost between $268 million and $284 million and would bring the jail up to industry square-foot standards while increasing the bed count to 1,028.

With so much uncertainty over future demands on the jail, Pridemore said that it might make sense to take a phased-in approach.

Perhaps the biggest question will be if the commission can come up with something that will be supported by the community. The commission is expected to recommend to the Clark County Council that it propose a bond to voters to pay for the jail.

Clark County Council Chair Marc Boldt said that he’s optimistic as property taxes are expected to drop as part of a state education funding package. But he said it could be a tough sell.

He said that diversion programs sound good to most people.

“But if that same person attacked me, I want that person booked,” added Boldt.

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Columbian political reporter