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March 22, 2023

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Proposals to replace Clark County Jail carry unexpectedly high costs

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
The Clark County Courthouse, left, and Clark County Jail are pictured in downtown Vancouver on May 2, 2018. The jail facility was built in 1984 and is now outdated and overcrowded.
The Clark County Courthouse, left, and Clark County Jail are pictured in downtown Vancouver on May 2, 2018. The jail facility was built in 1984 and is now outdated and overcrowded. (Amanda Cowan/Columbian files) Photo Gallery

City and county leaders are reeling from sticker shock after hearing that two scenarios to replace the overcrowded and outdated Clark County Jail would hinge on long-term operating costs far more expensive than they expected.

Under one proposal, the cost of housing a single inmate would rise from $110 to $175 per night. Under another, the nightly “heads on beds” expense would be $231 per inmate, more than double the current rate.

For the jail’s clients — the cities around Clark County that house people in the main jail facility at 707 W. 13th St., and the low-security work center at 5197 N.W. Lower River Road in Vancouver — both scenarios are too big to swing.

“The word ‘untenable’ went around the room several times,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said.

McEnerny-Ogle is one of 25 members of the Correctional Facility Advisory Commission, a temporary body made up of government, business, judicial, law enforcement, health care and social justice voices, hailing from Vancouver, Camas, La Center, Ridgefield, Washougal and the county at large.

The commission spent the last 18 months meeting to hammer out a goal-oriented process: What values does it want the new jail to reflect? What are the best practices for reducing recidivism? How can the community best reduce violence and suicide behind bars, and facilitate successful re-entries to life on the outside?

“From a values perspective, we reached some pretty strong harmony among the group,” said Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes, who’s also a member of the commission.

But at its most recent meeting on June 11, the commission saw for the first time how much those changes might cost; the discussion shifted.

“The cost just seemed to be prohibitive,” Holmes said.

On the table

Currently, two proposals are under consideration.

The cheaper option would include a full jail replacement at the existing site on 13th Street, while inmates at the work center would move into the main jail. Everything would happen under the same roof, and the Lower River Road facility could be converted into some other county service.

The second option would retain both sites. Pre-trial inmates and high-risk inmates who have already been sentenced would continue to be housed at the main jail on 13th Street, while low- and moderate-risk inmates who have been sentenced would be transported to the work center for housing. Each facility would see major renovations.

Both revamps come with predictably hefty capital costs: $381.5 million for the first and $413 million for the second.

But it’s the operating expenses that took commission members by surprise.

Currently, running the jail costs $27.3 million per year. Under the first scenario that figure would rise to $46.2 million per year. The second scenario would balloon to $60.7 million per year.

Focusing only on the upfront capital expenses misses the point, Holmes said.

“Those life-cycle costs really are the ones that ultimately have the biggest impact on the financial viability of something,” Holmes said.

To cover the capital costs, the county will have to re-evaluate its bonding capacity and issue a bond. But ongoing operating costs will need to be shouldered by jail clients.

“That was unsustainable,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “None of the agencies around the jail, including Vancouver, could accept those costs.”

Vancouver makes up at least half of the jail’s inmates on any given night, she added. Smaller communities around Clark County already send some of their inmates elsewhere — Washougal and Camas sometimes transport inmates to the Skamania County Jail, McEnerny-Ogle said. Woodland, Battle Ground and Ridgefield could go to the Cowlitz County Jail.

Smaller cities have more options, McEnerny-Ogle said, but the sheer number of Vancouver inmates means the city doesn’t have those kinds of alternatives. If local rates go up, and other cities start jumping ship in favor of cheaper facilities, Clark County and Vancouver could be left holding the bag.

“If you start nibbling away at removing the clients, then of course Vancouver’s percentage is going to go up,” she said.

Craig Pridemore, CEO of Columbia River Mental Health Services and chair of the jail commission, said the commission will be looking at the costs in more detail. He doesn’t expect the group’s timeline to change, however; it plans to conclude its work in July or August after delivering a recommendation to the Clark County Council.

Improving outcomes

Renovating the jail would help bring it into alignment with the best practices surrounding inmate housing and rehabilitation. Those practices have changed considerably since the 1980s when the facility was built.

“The jail opened in 1984 with very little in services space,” Clark County Jail Chief Ric Bishop said. “We just locked people up, took them back and forth to court, and let them out when we were supposed to.”

Bishop said the current building was constructed to support an indirect supervision model, in which deputies are separated behind a barrier from the inmates occupying cells or open bays.

The proposed new jail would be designed for direct supervision, with deputies working in and supervising among inmates inside the cell or bay area. It’s a superior model that works for about three-quarters of inmates, he said.

“The change to direct supervision means a calmer atmosphere,” Bishop said. “There’s a cost to do this. It increases the number of staff.”

Currently, the jail staffs 184.5 full-time employees. The first renovation scenario brings that figure up to 346 employees, and the second scenario would mean a staff of 457.

The increased operating funds would also allow the jail to funnel more resources into its re-entry program, which connects inmates with housing, employment, transportation and addiction resources to help ease the transition back into the community.

While repeat incarcerations for parole violations went up, Bishop said, the program has shown some success in reducing repeat incarcerations for criminal offenses — felony recidivism rates dropped by about one-third, while misdemeanor recidivism rates dropped by about one-quarter, according to a Clark County Sheriff’s Office report presented in February to the Neighborhood Association Council of Clark County.

“When people are given the tools, they actually try to comply,” Bishop said.

“(A bigger budget) means we can expand our services. We have a waiting list for our re-entry program; we can only take 15 people at a time,” he continued. “We are able to expand this in a bigger facility, with places and areas … to provide services to the population, thus, we can potentially reduce the need for more jail beds in the future.”

Columbian staff writer, Reporter Jake Thomas contributed to this story.

Columbian staff writer