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Nov. 26, 2021

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Clark County Jail reports loss of $3.5 million in bed revenue in 2021

Report: Decline expected to continue into 2022

By , Columbian staff writer
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When Clark County released its $723 million operating budget for 2022 on Thursday, it was clear the county’s general fund revenue has taken a beating. The county expects to bring $179.7 million general fund dollars, 12 percent less than the $203.8 million in 2020.

One of the departments contributing to the decline in revenue is the Clark County Jail. According to a report from County Manager Kathleen Otto, the jail had a loss of $3.5 million in jail bed revenue in 2021, which will continue into 2022.

Like many jail operators, Clark County recovers some of its costs by charging cities and other agencies for jail beds. For example, when the Ridgefield Police Department books someone into the county jail, Ridgefield is billed a daily rate for the number of days that individual was housed.

While the bed revenue doesn’t cover the total cost to run the jail, it’s a considerable sum. In 2020, jail bed revenue totaled $5.1 million. In 2021, it dropped to $2.1 million. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the revenue loss can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has created quite a bit of complications for the jail,” Corrections Chief Phil Sample said. “The number of inmates we’re holding here is (based) on the guidelines of the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and our county health officials.”

Prior to the pandemic, Sample said the average census varied from 590 to 630. Now it averages between 330 to 360 inmates. In recent months, the number has been slowly ticking upward. As of Friday, the count was 366.

Reducing the jail population to nearly half its previous population was neither simple nor easy. At a December 2020 council work session, retired jail supervisor Ric Bishop, who now works as a consultant, said the sheriff’s office worked with the courts and prosecutor’s office to develop a release strategy that would allow inmates considered an acceptable risk to return to their communities and limit intake to the most serious offenders.

Bishop said those efforts could be seen in the jail’s demographics. In May 2018, the jail housed 671 inmates. Of those inmates, 76 percent were felons and 56 percent were pretrial. In May 2020, the jail had 385 inmates with 93 percent felons and nearly 75 percent pretrial. Bishop said the rise in the number of inmates awaiting trial stemmed from the closing of courts across the state, which could also be seen in how long inmates were being held at the jail. He said prior to the pandemic, the average stay had been 16 to 7 days. That rose to 36 days by November 2020.

Sample noted releasing inmates wasn’t the only way the jail reduced its population.

“Some were transferred to state facilities, if that’s where their final destination was going to be. Some lower-level crimes were released. But there are also deferment programs now for mental health and alcohol/drug treatment facilities,” Sample added.

Many changes also had to be made inside the jail.

“We had to take certain areas of our jail for cohort housing, where newly admitted inmates will be isolated before they’re housed with general population or they’re medically cleared for general population,” Sample said. “That reduces the number (of inmates) you keep.”

The jail has 61 beds dedicated to intake quarantine. Inmates are typically held for six to seven days before being released into the general population.

Along with cordoning off a separate space for new inmates to be quarantined, the number of inmates held in each cell had to be reduced to allow for social distancing. Additionally, staff and inmates are required to wear masks or other protective equipment.

“It’s not only a huge amount of work, but it changed the working conditions. A lot of our corrections staff are there all the time with the inmates. We’re in a confined space, a confined environment. Everyone is wearing their N95s (masks), everyone is taking all the safety protocols that our county health officials have recommended for us,” Sample said.

Once the courts reopened, the need for new technology and infrastructure to support virtual visits became urgent. In addition to hearings and pretrial meetings with the court, many attorneys hold meetings with their clients remotely, and personal inmate visits must be held online. Yet the jail’s age has worked against those efforts, Sample said.

“You’re trying to do modern things with an old facility. We have been trying hard, and the county works really well with us, to fix problems and foresee problems are going to happen,” Sample said.

After the pandemic

Once the pandemic ends, it will take time before the jail can once again accommodate its previous capacity. Sample said he’s not thinking about what the future holds just yet.

“We have to focus on where we’re at right now with the pandemic, especially with the new variants coming up, how we go about our business keeping people safe — keep inmates safe, keep the community safe,” he said. “You have to adapt to the situation and make the best of what you have.”

Still, Sample said there will have to be discussions about the jail’s future. In June 2019, a Corrections Facility Advisory Commission completed an 18-month study of the jail. While it couldn’t settle on a final recommendation, mostly because of the estimated $381 million to $421 million cost, it did say the jail needed to be replaced with one better suited to offer rehabilitative services.

“As communities grow, your needs grow,” Sample said. “Your needs may not always just be numbers, there’s also the need to be more modern. You look at all the equipment that you have to have, like (American Disabilities Act) accommodations. These are things we have to fix and update.”