Airway Heights soon will be home to Washington’s second-largest prison.
The state has started moving its final group of 512 inmates into the Airway Heights Correctional Center, which will boost its total population to about 2,000 prisoners within two months.
Only the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla will be larger, housing 2,460 inmates.
“On paper, we should be No. 1 in size,” said Airway Heights Superintendent Kay Walter.
“Walla Walla’s capacity is supposed to be 1,900 people. But they’re way over that because of forced overcrowding.”
The state just spent $10 million adding two buildings at the Airway Heights prison, opened in 1994. Most of its prisoners are medium-security, but another 400 minimum-security prisoners are in a separate section called “the camp” next to the main Airway Heights buildings.
Officials plan to keep only medium-security prisoners in the new units even though they’ve been designed for quick conversion if the need ever arises to house maximum-security prisoners there.
“The two units have ‘wet cells’ with toilets and other features that would let prisoners be locked down for longer periods,” said the prison’s information manager, Cly Evans.
To handle the additional inmates arriving from other state prisons, Airway Heights officials have hired 90 more employees, including 35 guards.
Walter said Airway Heights was designed from the start as a 2,000-prisoner facility. It also was designed as an “efficient” prison where, in most cases, “bigger was cheaper,” Walter said.
But that same penny-pinching has led to strains and staff challenges, she added.
For instance, medium-security inmates have only one visiting room. “Add 500 more people and you’re going to have even less time for prisoners who want to meet with relatives and visitors,” said Walter.
Additional prisoners also will worsen the problem of inmate idleness, she said. The more crowded prison activity rooms become, the more time inmates have on their hands.
Prison jobs would be one solution except that “we’ve had a hard time finding enough jobs for 1,400 people, let alone even more,” Walter said.
The same problems are facing all state prisons, said Corrections Department spokesman Veltry Johnson.
The state’s prison population totals 12,823 - even though Washington’s prisons, including Airway Heights, were designed to house a total of only 8,300, he said.
One more large prison is due to open by 2000. That facility near Aberdeen will house about 1,960 inmates, said Walter.
The quick winner in the arrival of more inmates is the city of Airway Heights, which will get more state cash as a result, said City Administrator Mike Patterson.
Because the prison is inside the city limits, the state counts the additional inmates as Airway Heights residents.
By April 10, Airway Heights needs to give the state a census count to qualify for an annual payout of sales tax money. The 200 inmates due to arrive by then will generate about $10,000 more than the city would have received, Patterson said.
This year’s payout likely will be spent on streets, he said.
The city also negotiated a $300,000 impact fee from Corrections Department officials.
About half the fee will be used to build a courtroom in a planned City Hall center. The Corrections Department agreed to contribute that money because it said the prison creates more traffic - and more traffic violations - in Airway Heights, Patterson said.
Most Airway Heights residents see the swelling inmate population as a natural consequence of having a prison in their back yard, he added.
“There may be some who think the city is getting more families of prisoners moving in, and I’m sure we are seeing that,” Patterson said.
“At the same time, most people here don’t feel negative feelings about that. It’s accepted here, without the strong negative connotations other places might have.” , DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PRISON STATISTICS Airway Heights prison currently houses 1,127 medium-security prisoners and 400 minimum-security inmates. Its yearly budget is $32 million, with 70 percent of that spent on 591 staff salaries.
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