OLYMPIA – Gov. Christine Gregoire on Monday appointed Nebraska’s longtime prison chief, Harold Clarke, to head the Washington Department of Corrections.
Clarke’s first big political task will be to lobby the Legislature for a new prison. He takes over the job Feb. 28.
Gregoire said the prison system, which handles more than 17,000 inmates, is in good shape, but needs to address overcrowding and the big-picture issue of whether the state has the right people behind bars for the proper lengths of time.
She announced an independent review of the agency, with a preliminary report due back by the day Clarke begins. The panel will study issues such as the agency’s structure, flow of information and exposure to lawsuits.
Clarke, 53, replaces a well-regarded veteran director, Joe Lehman, who is retiring. Gregoire said she wanted an outsider with a fresh approach and a national perspective.
Clarke was asked his thoughts on taking the job when Gregoire could be ousted this spring if a statewide revote is authorized.
“You know, we all take risks every day,” he said. Then he added, “I got promises that it’s going to be 12 years.” That cracked up Gregoire.
A former warden at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, Clarke has been Nebraska’s prison chief for more than 14 years. The state has nearly 4,900 adult offenders.
He is vice president of the American Correctional Association and formerly headed the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
His wife, Marie, is an assistant attorney general. The couple has two adult children.
The son of a Southern Baptist pastor, Clarke was born in the Canal Zone, Panama. Both parents were Jamaican. He speaks with a lilt he describes as a blend of Spanish and the Queen’s English. He holds a black belt in Korean karate.
Gregoire said the state needs additional prison capacity. Hundreds of inmates are being sent to prisons out of state, she said. The Legislature has declined to commit to a new prison but did authorize additional beds at some existing facilities.
Then-Gov. Gary Locke had asked lawmakers to create a new prison on the grounds of the Coyote Ridge prison at Connell, Franklin County. Price tag: $140 million.
In his last budget before leaving office earlier this month, Locke suggested allowing the private sector to build a new facility and lease it back to the state – or even run it under a contract with the state.
Gregoire and Clarke both criticized that approach, but said new capacity is needed. They also called for a new discussion about sentencing policy.
“Are we incarcerating the right people? That’s where it all begins,” Clarke told a news conference.
Clarke will earn $135,000 a year; his appointment will need state Senate confirmation.
The governor also announced appointment of Seattle attorney Richard Mitchell as her staff counsel and Kurt Fritts as director of external affairs.
Gregoire said she’s committed to diversity in her cabinet. Clarke is the first black person to run the prison department; Mitchell is also black.
Mitchell is an associate with the Dorsey & Whitney firm in Seattle. He also has worked as an urban planner and architect, including work on Europe’s largest urban redevelopment project, the London Docklands.
Mitchell’s law degree is from Syracuse University. He also has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell and a master’s in urban planning from the University of Michigan.
Fritts has headed the state Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, worked as research analyst for the Senate, and served as political director for the state Democratic Party.
Among his earliest assignments will be vetting over 400 gubernatorial appointments, including key boards and commissions. The Senate is holding the nominations made by Locke so that Gregoire may change them if she wishes.
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