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

‘Build it and they will come’: A history of the Spokane County Jail

In early 2008, as Spokane County’s jail population climbed toward an all-time high of nearly 1,200 inmates, a consultant warned that any new facility likely would be filled to capacity.

“Build it and they will come,” the consultant, David Bennett, wrote in a 213-page report for the county.

Now, local leaders have set out again to determine whether Spokane County needs a new jail.

This time, vocal community members and reform-minded criminal justice experts are pushing back against the idea, arguing the county should fundamentally reconsider its reliance on incarceration, especially for those awaiting trial.

“Contact with the criminal justice system – here in Spokane and across the country – can result in a downward spiral for individuals and families, especially those living in or on the edge of poverty,” Maggie Yates, the county’s criminal justice administrator, said in an email.

“This is not only devastating for the individual, but also for our community since jail stays actually result in an increased likelihood of committing crimes in the future and an increased likelihood of future unemployment,” Yates said.

As talks continue, the history of local detention facilities might offer some valuable insights.

The bigger, the better?

In 1967, voters were asked to approve a hefty construction bond to replace two aging and overcrowded jails in Spokane. Under the proposal, city and county prisoners would be held, for the first time, within one modern building.

The county jail was more than 70 years old, and it showed. There were holes in the floors. Toilets were so old that no one could find replacement parts. In the dormitory section, there was just one shower for more than 30 men. In the maximum-security wing, four bunks were crammed into cells measuring about 7 feet in every direction; there wasn’t enough room for four men to stand up at the same time.

“I don’t believe in coddling jail prisoners, but they are entitled to decent, clean surroundings and no one should have to live in a place like this,” Sheriff William J. Reilly told a Spokane Daily Chronicle reporter during a tour of the facility in February 1967.

Police Chief Clifford N. Payne made his pitch for a new jail in a similar newspaper spread later that week. Five years earlier, the city had moved inmates into a converted office building along West Riverside Avenue after years of packing them into a “drunk tank” within the old City Hall building at Wall Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard.

The office building also was inadequate, Payne told the reporter. It lacked eating facilities and an exercise area, and was “nearly always overcrowded,” he said.

Voters were persuaded. The bond passed, and three years later, in fall 1970, officials opened the Public Safety Building, which stands today on the north side of the main county courthouse.

When it first opened, the $7 million building housed city and county prisoners, as well as the sheriff’s office, the police department, a few courtrooms and counters for dealing with traffic tickets. The same Chronicle writer lauded the building as “something of functional beauty.”

If this new jail was considered a success, it was short-lived. In fall 1975, the jail was declared full with an average prisoner population of 355 – a level officials hadn’t expected to reach until after 1980.

“We’ve had more than 400 prisoners at some times, and when we have that many, the place is packed,” the jail commander was quoted as saying. Operational costs soared from $600,000 in 1971 to an estimated $1 million in 1976. In 1978, officials talked of expanding the facility to comply with standards drafted by a state commission.

A mere addition to the Public Safety Building would not do, however. In 1982, plans were unveiled for another entirely new structure, another block to the north. This would become the current downtown jail, a six-story, $22 million monolith with an arched facade of black windows that opened in July 1986.

It was designed to hold about 460 inmates, each in their own cell, with 46 cells around each “pod,” or common living area. This was to facilitate “direct supervision,” a management strategy aimed at providing prisoners more time out of their cells, more recreation and more rehabilitation.

In a 1987 article, inmates said they cherished the privacy the new jail afforded them, and the jail commander at the time, Capt. Don Manning, reported that assaults on inmates and corrections officers were down sharply from the previous year.

But again, the Spokane County Jail quickly became overcrowded. In 1995, when the jail claimed an average prisoner population of 555, voters approved a three-year, 0.1 percent sales tax hike to add beds at the Geiger Corrections Center near Airway Heights.

The U.S. Army barracks, built in the 1950s, had been retrofitted to house inmates in the work-release program, but now there was talk of turning the facility into a “satellite jail” for other low-risk detainees. Hundreds of cells at the downtown jail were double-bunked, stripping inmates of the privacy that had helped encourage good behavior.

In early 2004, the downtown jail population reached 690 inmates, alarming then-Sheriff Mark Sterk.

“This is not good news,” Sterk wrote that March in an urgent email to the county commissioners. “The jail becomes unsafe for our officers at about 700 inmates.”

Sterk said he had asked the U.S. Marshals Service to remove some federal prisoners from the county facility, and judges had helped by allowing people booked on warrants to “bond out” within 24 hours. But he believed more actions were necessary.

Sterk proposed moving some inmates to the Benton County Jail in Kennewick and putting others in a tent city at Geiger. The commissioners balked at the latter suggestion, though long-term solutions were clearly needed.

A couple weeks earlier, an Olympia-based consulting firm, Looking Glass Analytics, had issued a report predicting Spokane County’s jail population could reach nearly 1,455 by 2015.

The report recommended the county seek to turn a profit on federal detention contracts and described the housing of federal prisoners in sterile economic terms: “How big is the market? How much of the market share do Yakima and Benton counties already have? Would Spokane’s per diem rate be competitive? Would it be profitable enough? Could new programs and new beds be parlayed into a profitable jail contractual plan?”

The “market” was more than big enough, but Spokane County was out of space. In June 2005, after the county halved the 120 beds allotted for federal inmates, U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley circulated an open letter calling the situation a “crisis.”

Federal officials said the reduction forced them to move about 60 inmates facing trial in Spokane to Benton County, increasing transportation costs. Whaley argued the distance also made it difficult for defense attorneys to consult with their clients, jeopardizing the quality of representation.

“This strain on public resources and the strain on the criminal justice system should not be permitted to continue,” the judge wrote. “The legislative branches of the respective governments have the responsibility to provide adequate funding for jail space. Immediate action is required to prevent a constitutional crisis.”

In August 2017, the county more than tripled its capacity for federal prisoners, allotting 132 beds for the Marshals Service, in part to fix a nearly $10 million budget shortfall.

In recent years, Spokane County’s prisoner population has fluctuated between 900 and 1,000. Inmates often spend up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells, costing taxpayers about $130 a day. Many have died, some by suicide, raising questions about their supervision and health care.

‘We absolutely need to do something different’

As the jail population surged in 2007, county officials tapped Bennett, the consultant, to study the local justice system. In the years that followed, they floated several proposals for another new jail, culminating with an abandoned bond measure in 2011.

In 2013, a blue-ribbon panel published “A Blueprint for Reform,” a 289-page report describing needed reforms. The panel wrote: “Research has repeatedly demonstrated that jail and intensive supervision do not reduce recidivism, and shifting away from an over-reliance on jail and towards community-based alternatives is critical to move us into a 21st century justice model.”

Two years later, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the county the first of several grants to address jail crowding and racial disparities. The foundation has so far awarded $3.8 million for those efforts, and while the county has expanded its pretrial services department, there has been no significant reduction in the jail population, frustrating some activists.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has advocated for a new jail in the past, and County Commissioner Al French, who chairs the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, expressed support for a new facility in January, saying a jail with a better layout could be operated more safely and efficiently.

In an interview Friday, Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl stopped short of calling for a new facility, but did express concern about how often the jail is placed under “critical” and “emergency” protocols due to overcrowding.

That forces jailers to book and immediately release many people charged with misdemeanor property crimes – crimes that Meidl believes are a public safety issue.

“I think that with the challenges we are facing on patrol right now, with the often critical or emergency booking status, we absolutely need to do something different if we really want to have that impact on crime that this community longs for,” he said. “Whether that is a new jail or some other process that we don’t have in place … we absolutely need to do something different.”

Freedom not always free

Much of the current debate in Spokane, and across the country, centers on the use of cash bail to keep people incarcerated before trial. The system favors the wealthy who can pay to get out of jail, while many poor defendants remain locked up despite being presumed innocent.

“It is fundamentally unfair that two people charged with the exact same crime can experience totally different judicial systems based on the size of their bank accounts,” said Camilo Ramirez, communications director for the Bail Project, a New York-based nonprofit that recently began bailing out Spokane County inmates in an effort to demonstrate the system isn’t necessary.

“Our data prove that you don’t need money to convince people to come back to court,” Ramirez said.

The commercial bail bonds industry – an American innovation legal in only one other country, the Philippines – has lobbied against reforms across the country, though cash bail recently has been eliminated or restricted in California, Arizona, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

On any given day, more than two-thirds of Spokane County inmates are in pretrial detention, and unaffordable cash bail is presumed to be the driving factor.

“This pretrial detention is the pipeline to mass incarceration,” said Jaime Hawk, legal strategy director for the ACLU of Washington’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

Hawk, who previously served as a federal defender in Spokane and taught law at Gonzaga University, said a state court rule is supposed to limit the use of cash bail and correct for financial inequities by requiring judges to consider a defendant’s financial resources when setting a bond.

But that doesn’t always happen. Some judges, Hawk said, might find a defendant is poor enough to qualify for a public defender, but then set bond at an amount the defendant clearly can’t afford.

“One of the problems, frankly, is that the court rule is not followed as consistently as it should be,” she said. “In practice, there’s just not a meaningful presumption of release. We’re essentially punishing people and having them serve their sentence before they’re released.”

This is true for many Spokane County inmates. Bennett’s 2008 report found large numbers of county inmates had been released from jail with sentences of “time served.” About 73 percent of inmates convicted of misdemeanors, and 42 percent of those convicted of felonies, had served their sentences before a judge even determined that incarceration was an appropriate punishment.

Research shows that people held before trial are more likely to be convicted. Hawk said one explanation is that defendants are more eager to accept plea deals if it means they can finally get out of jail.

Those who are released, meanwhile, tend to achieve more favorable judgments because they can hold onto jobs, stay on medications, stay connected with their families and participate more effectively in their legal defense.

Yates, the criminal justice administrator, said city and county officials recently recruited the Vera Institute of Justice, another New York-based nonprofit, to facilitate talks and help examine whether the jail is improving or undermining public safety.

“Before we can make a big decision … we need to get a better understanding of who is in our jail,” Yates said. “We’re not at a point where we can discuss the funding or the sizing or the design of a new theoretical facility. We’re not there yet.”