Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 23° Partly Cloudy

Eye On Olympia

Proposed for the chopping block: the state’s only women’s prison east of the Cascades….

From tomorrow's paper:

Citing the state's budget woes, prison officials want to close Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women, Washington's only women's prison east of the Cascade Mountains.

As early as next summer, the state would start transferring roughly 350 inmates to a prison near Vancouver. About 140 workers would have to shift to jobs elsewhere or be laid off.

“It was pretty clear that based on the fiscal constraints we're going to be facing, that we need to close a facility,” said Dick Morgan, director of the state Department of Corrections' prisons division.

Pine Lodge, located in Medical Lake, includes some aging buildings that need costly renovations, he said, “so it became the most likely candidate.”

The state would save about $14 million over the next two years, he said.

Although state lawmakers will have the final say, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed billions of dollars in reduced spending over the next two years, forcing state agencies to find ways to wring that money from their budgets.

Pine Lodge superintendent Walker Morton said he's urging staff at the minimum custody prison to try not to worry, that it's just a proposal. If the prison closes, he said, he's been told it wouldn't take place until February of 2010.

“We just have to keep our eyes and ears open until the legislators do their thing,” he said.

Morton met with the prison's inmates Tuesday and told them the news. Most were understanding, he said.

Closing Pine Lodge is only one facet of Gregoire's proposed $125 million in savings at the Department of Corrections. And the agency isn't alone; the Department of Social and Health Services is trying to figure out how to cut spending by nearly $1.3 billion; the Department of Health by $75 million.

Morgan said prison officials would be happy to consider money-saving alternatives to closing Pine Lodge. But the state is facing 1,000 fewer inmates than expected, Morgan said, and in the face of a massive budget shortfall, its hard to justify keeping all the prisons open.

News of the proposal, which initially trickled out in phone calls and emails, stunned workers.
“Some people can't believe this,”said Dawnel Southwick, a secretary supervisor at the prison for the past 9 years. “This facility is not the run-down, broken-down, not-going-to-survive-until-next-week facility that they're making it out to be.”

“These are good, family-wage jobs,” said Matthew Pederson, executive director of the West Plains chamber of commerce.

The state has two prisons with female inmates in Western Washington. The Washington State Corrections Center for Women is near Gig Harbor, and Mission Creek is near Shelton.

“I've never heard of them closing a prison,” said Marye Jorgenson, who works in Pine Lodge's records department. “You keep up hope that if people fight hard and long enough, we can hang on, hopefully through this recession.”

The Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents most of the workers, said that the state should instead be looking at ways to bring more money into the state treasury.

“I don't think we can cut our way out of this huge deficit,” said union spokesman Tim Welch. One obvious place to look, he said, are the “huge tax loopholes” for businesses.

For inmates from Eastern Washington, the transfer to Larch Corrections Center would mean being hundreds of miles away from loved ones.

“It's going to devastate families, and most women in prison have children,” said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, a sentencing-reform group based in Colville. “If you move them to where you can't see them in a day and get home, most people won't be able to afford to visit.”

Morgan concedes that the move could be tough on Eastern Washington families. But he said most inmates – like most Washingtonians – are from the western side of the state.

Patricia Gaimari said that closing the prison would disrupt a valuable network of more than 170 volunteers who teach, counsel, minister and support inmates and their families.

“I've told some of my volunteers and they're devastated,” the corrections specialist said.

Volunteers provide clothes for women upon release. They run a Girl Scouts program for girls whose mothers are incarcerated. They come up with back-to-school supplies, holiday gifts and Mother's Day family celebrations that help keep families intact.

“The impact is going to be far greater than just the 140 staffers at Pine Lodge,” Gaimari said.

Among the other changes proposed by the state Department of Corrections:
-closing two units at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla,
-cutting 40 staffers at DOC headquarters,
-saving $3 million but cutting nurses and medications,
-freezing all pay raises “until further notice”,
-and reducing or eliminating firearms training at some prisons,

“As you can tell from this list, the situation is serious,” Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail wrote in a memo to staffers Friday.

Gregoire has also proposed changes that would take 12,000 people off probation and cut probation staff by 400 people. Very sick prisoners would be released. Drug- and property criminals who aren't citizens would be deported. And some drug offenders' sentences would be shortened.

In addition, family and parenting programs for inmates would be cut, as would a “job hunter” program for inmates being released. Classes and drug treatment in prison would also be cut.
In another email, Vail also said that lawmakers may make changes during the legislative session.

“At this time, no one can predict what our budget will look like when it is passed in April,” he wrote, “but the changes coming to the agency are likely to be significant.”

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.