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Republican Legislators Set Their Sights On State Prison System

Republican lawmakers Monday turned up the heat on a state prison system they say coddles criminals and wastes taxpayer dollars.

They unveiled legislation that would require most prisoners to work eight-hour days or attend classes to boost their basic educational skills. Prisoners would also have to pay for privileges like cable TV or college-level classes and help out with their medical costs.

The bill would attack rising prison costs by slashing management positions and requiring an audit of prison equipment purchases.

At a Monday morning news conference, lawmakers blasted Chase Riveland, secretary of the Department of Corrections, for a style of prison management they said encourages waste and is too easy on prisoners.

Rep. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, said Riveland’s philosophy amounts to “keep the prisoners happy” at a time when the voters are crying out for tougher sentences and more spartan prisons.

“He’s out of touch with the public,” Padden said.

Reached at his parents’ home in Wisconsin, where he is on personal leave, Riveland said lawmakers were making “misleading” statements. He said the main reason prison costs are so high is because the Legislature has passed laws over the last several years increasing sentences for a whole host of crimes.

“I think this is simply a rhetorical thing,” Riveland said. “I mean, there is nobody sitting there with an understanding of how the budget works.”

As prisons chief since 1986, Riveland has long been a critic of “get tough” approaches to crime that have swollen prison populations without significantly reducing crime. “Ever since Willie Horton, we’ve been on this incarceration roll,” Riveland said.

There are currently more than 11,000 inmates in state prisons. By the end of the 1990s that number is expected to reach 14,000, even without any toughening of sentencing laws being considered by the Legislature.

Some lawmakers went beyond mere philosophical differences at Monday’s news conference, accusing Riveland of dishonesty in his budget requests.

“I think the books are cooked. I think there’s a good chance these are padded,” said Rep. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

He pointed to a list compiled by Republican staffers that compares the prisons’ request for equipment purchases with similar items found at Costco or Sears. Many of the prices appear inflated, Schoesler said.

For example, the agency is asking for bookcases costing $500 each, when Costco sells others for $150. The agency listed VCRs at $333 when a low-end VCR at Costco goes for $140. Chairs for the agency cost $351 while Costco sells them for $160.

Those prices do not necessarily reflect what the department will end up paying for the items, according to Margaret Vonheeder, budget director for the Department of Corrections. She said many of the prices come from state contracts, but the agency can go to other vendors if they can save money.

Vonheeder said the department does not try to mislead legislators.

“I can’t tell you how they got that impression,” Vonheeder said. “We try very hard to make our budget an honest one.”

In fact, the department is always seeking cheaper ways of doing things, Vonheeder said. Last year, prisons saved $376,000 by buying beds, wardrobes and some cars from federal surplus, and the savings were returned to the state coffers rather than being spent on other items, she said.

Riveland said that Republican plans to beef up work and education requirements for prisoners could end up costing more money because guards would have to be paid overtime to supervise inmates for the longer hours.

Mercer Island Republican Rep. Ida Ballasiotes anticipated that argument at the morning news conference. She said Riveland uses cost as a scare tactic to argue against anti-crime programs proposed by the Legislature.

“It’s almost like blackmailing the public,” Ballasiotes said.