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

Spokane County Jail crowding creates dangerous conditions

FILE – An inmate was found unresponsive in his cell Thursday at the Spokane County Jail. Despite efforts to revive him, he was pronounced dead. This photo shows part of the jail’s older facilities in the Public Safety Building. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Recent overcrowding at the Spokane County Jail and Geiger Corrections Center has forced guards to keep inmates locked in their cells for longer periods of time – a practice that experts say creates a more dangerous environment for prisoners and staff alike.

“We are all but completely out of space,” Sgt. Tom Hill, a spokesman for the county’s detention services, said Friday. “We can’t be as effective as we need to be under the current conditions.”

The jail was designed for “direct supervision,” a management strategy in which inmates are allowed into common areas during the day with access to TV, books, phones, games and other activities.

When inmates are cooped up for long periods of time, they become more stressed, and “we see more fights, we see more disobedience,” Hill said.

When the jail was built in 1986, it was supposed to hold 462 inmates. As it quickly overflowed, additional cells were built in the adjacent courthouse, and later the old Air Force barracks at Geiger were renovated to house minimum-security prisoners.

For more than two decades, overcrowding has made it difficult to keep up the direct supervision model. In 2015, the National Institute of Corrections advised jail officials to reinstate it again.

Hill said Spokane County can now reasonably manage a total of 886 inmates.

“When we’re over 886, that’s a problem,” he said. “In order to effectively operate a jail, you need to have a number of empty beds. When inmates are causing problems, you need to be able to move them around.”

Jacqueline van Wormer, the county’s criminal justice administrator, said the inmate population fluctuates significantly. The biggest spikes – up to 1,180 inmates – occurred from 2008 to 2010, she said.

It’s mostly gone down since then, although data show slight year-over-year increases since 2014. Last year, the average daily inmate population was about 942.

The average population was 1,004 this February but had dropped to 912 by Friday morning, Hill said.

“While the number is down enough that it gives us some breathing room and relieves stress, it’s still a problem,” he said. “We have room out at Geiger, but we don’t have people that we consider safe enough or low-risk enough to send out there.”

The game of musical chairs is complicated by rival gang affiliations and, recently, a high number of female inmates in the detention facilities, Hill said.

There have been various attempts to secure funding for a new jail, including an abandoned bond measure in 2011. Hill said he doesn’t expect a new facility to be built anytime soon.

“I think everybody knows that it’s going to have to happen, but as far as I know, no one is officially talking about it right now,” he said. “There are a few unknowns though.”

One lingering question, he said, is the impact of the county’s new risk-assessment tool, which helps judges determine whether defendants should be jailed before trial. The formula is based on defendants’ ages, criminal histories and pending charges. It’s used to predict whether they are likely to skip court dates or commit new crimes.

The risk-assessment tool, unveiled in January, is a cornerstone of the $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant the county received last year to reduce jail overcrowding and racial disparities.

Officials hope the changes will be significant.

But Hill said it’s hard to fathom that jailing only the worst offenders will offset growth in the population of Spokane County. Recent projections show a 17 percent increase over the next two decades, from just shy of 500,000 residents to more than 583,000.

“It is only logical that the inmate population will grow with that,” he said.