Cuts at Washington state prisons will eliminate about 45 jobs at Airway Heights Corrections Center and could cancel a rehabilitative program designed to prepare inmates for reentry to society.
“It’s going to have very real impacts,” said Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail. “It’s just a tough time.”
Eldon visited the prison Wednesday to discuss nearly $53 million in cuts the Department of Corrections could have to make as the state looks for ways to balance its troubled budget.
Rehabilitative programs at the state prisons will be reduced, including the possible elimination of the Right Living program, which was introduced in 2007 to teach inmates how to interact positively in the community. Inmates live under rules that prohibit swearing and horseplay and require them to refer to each other as “mister.”
Airway Heights was the first prison in the country to implement the program prison-wide. Cutting it will save about $500,000 each year, Veil said.
“It’s better than cutting the officers on the perimeter,” Vail said.
Other proposals include closing the minimum-security Larch Corrections Center in Clark County on Feb. 1, and eliminating a deputy secretary, captains at minimum-security prisons, kitchen staff positions, a deputy secretary and emergency response managers responsible for overseeing crisis planning and policy implementation at major prisons, including Airway Heights. The position was introduced within the last five years, Vail said.
Airway Heights will lose 20 to 25 state employees and about 19 contract workers, said Maggie Miller-Stout, prison superintendent. About 700 people work at the prison.
The cuts come as prison officials investigate how a man who killed his cellmate at the Spokane County Jail in 2004 attacked two cellmates at Airway Heights last month.
Michael L. West, 34, remains in solitary confinement at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he spent nearly five years after being convicted of first-degree murder for the attack on his jail cellmate. He underwent mental health treatment and was described as “a cooperative and appropriate patient” in January, although officials said in August he’d refused in-depth counseling, according to prison records.
West arrived at Airway Heights on Sept. 28.
On Oct. 10, prison staff members say he gouged out cellmate Chad E. Bolstad’s left eye and severely injured his right eye.
Another cellmate, Gary L. Welch, suffered minor injuries.
West is not scheduled to be released until 2048.
The DOC does not have a policy that prohibits killers convicted of attacks on cellmates from living with someone again, Vail said. The DOC is investigating West’s case but has not implemented any immediate policy changes.
“You try not to make sweeping policy changes based on one bad incident,” Vail said.
Vail said the fact that attacks like that don’t happen more often is a testament to his staff.
“You’ve got to think of who you’re dealing with here,” Vail said. “Bad things happen in our facilities from time to time. We’re really good at not having them happen all the time.”
He said the proposed cuts won’t make that easier.
“It increases the risk, I would not deny that,” he said.