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State Prisons May Get Hot Wired


High-voltage electric fences may replace tower guards at Washington state prisons in a cost-saving move under consideration by prison authorities.

The lethal fences could be used at nine maximum and medium security facilities - including Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane.

“We are looking for every efficiency that saves money but doesn’t compromise security,” said Tom Rolfs, state prisons director in Olympia.

Washington prisoners are uneasy at the prospect, said Donald Byers, an inmate at the Airway Heights prison.

“This is just another way to treat us less than human,” Byers said.

Staffing at Airways Heights would not be reduced, said spokesman Rich Hewson. The prison’s one tower, staffed 24 hours a day, controls all exits and entrances into the prison.

Washington prison officials visited California last November to see how the 4,800-volt fences work, Rolfs said.

By comparison, an ordinary house outlet delivers 110 volts, and an electric range and drier, 220 volts.

California expects to save $25 million by replacing 580 tower guards with the lethal fences, said Diana Johnson-Proctor, program director at the California Department of Corrections in Sacramento.

The fences are operating or near operation at 16 prisons, and are being installed in five others, she said.

“For every tower where we can take the staff away, we save about $200,000 a year,” Johnson-Proctor said.

Tower guards are transferred to other jobs in the state’s 127,000-inmate system, which has grown sixfold since the early 1980s.

“People aren’t losing their jobs. We are a growing organization down here,” she said.

The California fence experts will visit Olympia in mid-March “to see if we could implement a similar program up here,” Rolfs said.

The idea is so preliminary state officials don’t know what it would cost.

Despite their concentration camp image, the fences haven’t been criticized by civil libertarians and prisoners’ rights groups in California, Johnson-Proctor said.

“Surprisingly, they haven’t protested,” she said.

The lethal fences are located between two barbed-wire-topped perimeter fences, so people can’t walk up and touch them. They are marked with warning signs.

“It’s completely isolated from any human contact,” Johnson-Proctor said.

The main problems have been environmental. The high-voltage fences kill birds who land on them and small animals who burrow under the perimeter fences.

The lethal fence proposal should be carefully scrutinized in Washington, said a Spokane prisoners’ rights activist.

“I’m concerned about the inhumane treatment of people,” said Father Michael Treleaven of Gonzaga University, a member of Amnesty International and a political science professor.

“The U.S. is on a binge building high-tech prisons and seems to think more prisons make safer streets. It’s nonsense,” Treleaven said.

The Washington Legislature and the governor’s office would have to be involved in any decision to use the lethal fences, prison officials said.

“What works in California might not necessarily work here,” Rolfs said.


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