Spokane’s work release center was sinking long before it was condemned last week.
Structural cracks spread across the face of Cornelius House as it settled nearly an inch since May, shifting bricks out of whack, buckling window sashes. By the time state engineers declared the 1928 building a hazard Friday, the decline was so obvious the floor slanted.
But even so crumbled, it was home.
Now the felons who’d been completing the last few months of their prison sentences in the supervised home on West Mallon feel like they’re “back in the joint.”
Fifty-nine men returning from jobs or job interviews Friday were given two boxes to pack and by nightfall were moved to Pine Lodge Pre-Release Center. They now share two showers and three cramped rooms above the prison gym at Medical Lake.
The men, some within two weeks of being released into the community, are worried about jobs they can’t get to, family they can’t see and razor wire that reminds them of where they’ve been.
“The minute I walked back behind that fence, it was like being locked up again,” said Tony Heinrich, 32.
State officials say the arrangement obviously is temporary.
“It’s terribly disruptive for everyone involved,” said Cyrus McLean, community corrections supervisor at the Department of Corrections.
Second Chance, the nonprofit agency which runs Cornelius House, hopes the crisis forces a move into the Brownstone Building downtown.
A year ago, the city hearing examiner granted Second Chance a permit to move state prisoners from the West Central neighborhood to a renovated building at Third and Browne. The building has been ready since Oct. 1.
But the proposed move was contested by neighbors, business owners and school officials who appealed the permit process in Superior Court. That appeal has kept the Department of Corrections from contracting with Second Chance for the new facility.
“They do not have an unchallenged permit at the Brownstone, that gives me a great deal of pause,” said Kaye Adkins, regional administrator for the Department of Corrections.
Last week’s condemnation also stymied Second Chance’s plans to keep housing federal prisoners at Cornelius House. Once the state declared the building structurally unsafe, federal officials also pulled 13 prisoners and placed them at Geiger Corrections Center.
Statewide, the nonprofit agency has withstood a series of blows to its programs this fall. In September, two legislative committees were convened after a 17-year-old confined to a Second Chance halfway house beat a 12-year-old baby sitter to death in Stanwood, Wash.
Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, who heads the corrections committee, say that inquiries into the licensing of youth homes is ongoing. Eight years ago, her daughter, a Seattle businesswoman, was killed by an escapee from a home run by Second Chance.
At least one party that stands to benefit from the recent upheaval is Spokane County - which wants the Cornelius House property. Although current commissioners have never considered the matter, previous administrations have attempted to buy the Cornelius House lot - the only lot that side of Mallon the county doesn’t own.
Since 1988, Cornelius House has allowed low-risk inmates to finish the last three to six months of a criminal sentence in a supervised non-prison site. Inmates must hold jobs, are screened and undergo frequent blood and alcohol tests.
Staff and offenders attempted to restore normalcy this week at temporary headquarters at Pine Lodge.
Director Bruce Kuennen and McLean are borrowing desks and relying on pagers and cellular phones to keep up with calls. Counselors usually available to offenders are now in offices across the prison yard. Offenders share one phone and their contact with visitors is severely limited.
“My family lives 110 miles away, they don’t know where I am and I don’t know where I am,” said Steve Daniels, 30, of Moses Lake.
The Cornelius House men are mostly separate from the 322 men and women housed at Pine Lodge, a minimum-security prison camp. But they are also painfully close. While Cornelius House offenders who work graveyard shifts try to sleep, Pine Lodge inmates play basketball downstairs.
But mostly Second Chance staff are working overtime driving offenders into Spokane to jobs. Half must be driven the 17 miles downtown that they used to be able to walk to - the other half are driven to scattered sites around the county.
Richard Warren, 36, left work at a downtown restaurant at midnight Sunday but it was after 2 a.m. by the time the van finished picking up other offenders.
For Warren, it’s a chance for things to go wrong. He is scheduled to be released from prison in December, and each upheaval increases the likelihood something will get in his way.
“We’ve got tension going both ways,” he said of staff and inmates. “After 10 years, this is the last thing I need.”
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