Eastern State Hospital could soon turn into the big house for young criminals as well as the mentally ill.
The state is working on a little-known plan to fill three empty wards at the hospital with as many as 80 juvenile offenders by the end of the year.
The proposed makeshift prison is unrelated to a multi-county plan to convert Martin Hall, an empty building on the hospital campus, into a 56-bed juvenile jail.
If the two projects succeed, there could be almost half as many juvenile offenders as psychiatric patients on the Medical Lake hospital grounds by this time next year.
The latest hospital/prison proposal concerns Spokane’s mental health community, but appears to be nearing approval.
Karen Brunson of the state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration said the hospital wards are seen as a temporary solution until the state can build a 300-bed juvenile institution somewhere in Eastern Washington.
Brunson said the state Department of Social and Health Services will make a decision on the proposal as soon as possible. “The decision obviously has to be made very quickly,” she said.
Donna Petty, president of the Spokane Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said her organization has a variety of concerns, including the fact the proposal appears to be a done deal.
“We feel the hospital was designed for people with mental illnesses,” she said. “To mix the juvenile offenders with the people with mental illnesses doesn’t seem like a good mix.”
Petty warned that the hospital’s 300 psychiatric patients are vulnerable to harassment or physical abuse. “They tell us it would be high security, but you just don’t know.”
Hospital officials do not appear concerned.
“I think it’s workable from the hospital’s point of view,” said Hal Wilson, Eastern’s chief operating officer.
Wilson indicated the project was not a certainty. “We’re still pretty much in the talking stage,” he said.
Brunson said the state’s need for more juvenile offender beds has been mounting for years. Institutions on the West Side are overflowing. The East Side has no state-run juvenile institution and instead sends its prisoners over the mountains and relies on a string of group homes and overloaded juvenile jails.
Brunson said the state has safely blended criminal offender units with mentally disabled patients on the same institution grounds before.
The three empty hospital wards would have to be remodeled for tighter security, Brunson said. She also noted the possibility of fencing off an area behind the hospital and bringing in portable classrooms.
The latest prison plans at Eastern State Hospital will not affect the Martin Hall plans, said Medical Lake Mayor Sharie Sterns.
The Martin Hall project is the work of a coalition of nine northeast Washington counties trying to find more beds for young criminals.
The project emerged after Spokane County voters twice refused to expand the county’s existing juvenile jail.
Juvenile jails hold inmates for as many as 30 days. Prisons, like the one proposed for Eastern State Hospital, can house the young criminals for years.
Medical Lake and four other finalist cities want to host the 300-bed juvenile prison the state plans to build in Eastern Washington. The prison would be located off hospital grounds, south of Lakeland Village.
Other finalists are Walla Walla, Ephrata, Ritzville and Newport.