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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Closing Geiger: Wise or worrisome?

Many consequences to consider before abandoning old jail

Art Garcia teaches a class of inmates on May 24 at Geiger Corrections Center in Airway Heights. Some officials worry that if Geiger closes, inmates won’t get the same level of treatment and educational services that they currently do. (Tyler Tjomsland)
By Thomas Clouse and Jonathan Brunt The Spokesman-Review

On its face, moving inmates from the Spokane County jail system to a jail in Kennewick solves big problems.

In the short term, local governments would save hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when they’re continuing to deal with difficult budget decisions.

In the long term, it could take pressure off the county to build a new jail to replace the aging Geiger Corrections Center, which county leaders have fought to replace for years with little political success.

But county officials are fighting the potential move, which was sparked by city of Spokane officials who have long battled the county over the daily rates the county charges to hold inmates.

County law enforcement leaders warn that the city is ignoring potential consequences of shipping inmates to a jail 145 miles away and say inmates will have far fewer opportunities for drug and alcohol counseling, anger management and parenting courses, classes on dealing with money and other programs aimed at giving inmates stability when they re-enter society.

“Yes, you can save a couple of dollars and warehouse them,” David Bennett, the county’s Utah-based jail consultant told county commissioners last week. “But there are going to be dollars that will be wasted unless you have the linkage back to the community. Closing Geiger … goes against everything we have been working toward.”

City leaders informed the county last year that they would pull city inmates from the county jail system this spring. That date is on hold, though the city appears to remain on a path toward sending its inmates elsewhere.

In response, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich announced in April that if the city pulled its inmates, the county could no longer afford to keep Geiger Corrections Center open. That means the county could be forced to also send inmates to other jails, potentially also to Benton County. Geiger is where many of the county’s programs aimed at preventing inmates from committing new crimes are housed.

“It blows a $2 million hole in the budget,” Knezovich said of the city’s proposed move to send inmates to Benton County.

But city leaders say they just want a system that’s more affordable for everyone, including the county.

“We know there are beds out there that are less than half the cost of the current system,” said Spokane’s Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley. “Hopefully, we can all work together to reduce total costs for all participants in the jail system.”

Spokane County is responsible for paying to jail all inmates facing felonies and for inmates facing misdemeanors committed outside city limits. City governments pay to house inmates facing misdemeanor charges originating within city borders.

Last year, the city of Spokane paid the county about $5.3 million to house city offenders. Cities pay the county about $130 a day per inmate. Benton County has offered to house city inmates for about $56 a day, including transportation costs to and from Spokane.

City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said the difference between Benton County’s and Spokane County’s price is hard to ignore. Mayor David Condon announced earlier this year that the city may have to find as much as $10 million in savings to balance the 2013 budget.

“Right now we need to look at providing the services that are required under the law at the lowest cost possible to the taxpayer. It looks like Benton County may be the winner at this point,” said McLaughlin, who leads the City Council’s public safety committee. “It would be great if we could afford a new jail. We’re not at that point yet.”

Geiger Corrections Center, which is converted military housing built in 1959 and located on Spokane International Airport property, houses mostly nonviolent offenders and has been plagued by safety concerns and escapes. County commissioners have repeatedly delayed proposed tax votes for replacing Geiger, most recently last year. That $199 million plan included a replacement facility for Geiger, a separate community corrections center and the renovation of the Spokane County Jail back to its original number of beds.

The city, to get that low $56-a-day rate, would have to guarantee Benton County that it house at least 50 inmates there at a time. That means inmates who have been sentenced and who are awaiting sentencing may be housed there.

Housing inmates two hours away before they’re convicted worries some defense attorneys.

Roger Peven, a defense attorney, had to deal with inmates being housed in Benton County as the former executive director of the federal defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho.

As a general rule, defense attorneys should meet with their clients at least once a week, he said. Driving to Benton County takes a couple of hours, during which public defenders are on the clock.

County and city public defenders are more likely to be overloaded with clients, he said. He worries that local defendants who can’t afford private attorneys could suffer. While some communication can happen over video, Peven said attorneys should not discuss confidential information by video conferencing.

“There’s nothing that substitutes for face-to-face contact,” he said.

He added, however, that many of his clients preferred the Benton County Jail over the Spokane County Jail because it’s less crowded and more open.

Even so, inmates moved to Benton County would lose face-to-face contact with family. Visitation at the Spokane County Jail and Geiger is face-to-face (though behind a window at Spokane County Jail). It’s only by video in Benton County.

Lt. Joanne Lake, Geiger’s assistant facility commander, said offenders are more likely to be successful if they maintain contact with families and their kids.

Talking to someone by video is “not the same as being able to hold somebody’s hand,” she said. “It’s definitely not the same for the children.”

County Commissioner Mark Richard said he’s worried that inmates sent to Benton County will not be able to participate in work release, a program that allows inmates to keep their jobs during the day while staying at Geiger at night. He said county leaders should find ways to consolidate functions, such as probation services, “so we can go back to the city and say, ‘We empathize. Let us deliver these savings through efficiencies.’ ”

Spokane County’s charge-as-you-go system worked great just a few years ago when the jail and Geiger were “bursting” as they housed a combined population of about 1,300 inmates, said County Commissioner Todd Mielke. However, programs such as Mental Health Court have been such a success that they reduced the jail population.

Per-inmate costs, however, have had to rise to compensate for smaller inmate populations at aging facilities that have fixed costs, he said.

“That’s why the cost per inmate looks so upside down,” Mielke said. “There’s a big difference between the cost per inmate versus our total cost.”

Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, said most city offenders don’t have long stays in the system and are far less likely to be involved in programs aimed at reducing repeat offenses.

Even so, county officials say, if removing city inmates means the county can’t afford to keep Geiger open, many inmates facing felonies also may lose access to programs.

“Whether they pay the bill or not, they release back into the community,” Lake said.