The long-standing problem with jail overcrowding in Spokane County could be temporarily fixed with reinforced-tent structures, according to a plan currently under consideration.
Spokane County Jail director Mike Sparber asked county commissioners on Monday for $75,000 to hire a firm to study the feasibility of moving a few hundred inmates to temporary shelters near the county’s aging second jail facility, Geiger Corrections Center, on the West Plains.
Commissioners have not yet voted to allow Sparber to spend the money on the study and have not approved the project.
Over the last few years, the jail population between downtown Spokane and Geiger has hovered above 900 inmates, and the facility has had issues with crowding for decades. Some officials, however, have argued that the county wouldn’t need more jail space if other steps were taken, such as releasing more people accused of nonviolent crimes prior to trial.
Sparber said the high number of people has required officers to keep the jail locked down most of the time, and inmates usually only have about an hour and a half a day that they are allowed out of their cells. Sparber argued if he had space to move inmates around, he could shift to a “direct supervision” management style, where inmates are allowed in the common areas most of the day.
“It takes four to five years to build a new jail, but I have to deal with the conditions and everything that’s going on in the facility right now,” he said.
The “flexible structures” have been used by the military and as shelters during emergencies and can be made from reinforced fabric or metal. Such shelters can be put up in about a month at a cost ranging from $6 million to $16 million, depending on the materials used and the company producing them.
Early sketches of the new facility looked similar to a windmill, with corrections officers stationed at the hub and inmates housed in each of the blade-shaped pods. Each pod could house 64 inmates.
According to a presentation by county staff, the “flexible jail” structures could cost 5% of the $200 million estimated cost for a new jail. The material covering the outside would be designed to last between 15 and 25 years.
Sparber anticipates he would move around 200 inmates to such a facility, but some models the county has considered could hold nearly 450 inmates.
County Commissioner Josh Kerns said it’s still too early to decide on the structures, but the idea seemed “worth vetting” and could relieve some of the immediate issues at Geiger and the downtown jail.
“There is (still) a conversation about a new jail,” he said. “This would not eliminate those discussions, but would potentially buy us time to make that decision.”
Commissioner Mary Kuney called the structures a “temporary fix” that could help the county switch to direct supervision, which she supports.
“If this is a temporary solution to help us get there, this is great,” she said. “But we haven’t vetted any of this, this was just our first opportunity to see what we could do.”
Kuney and Kerns said they were both interested in the idea, but would first like county staff to research how much it would cost and where they could get the funds for both the study and the shelters.
Commissioner Al French said the temporary shelters could be a back-up option if voters turn down a new jail, but the county should be investing in a building that will last.
“It’s going to require an investment that, quite frankly, will not meet our long-term needs,” he said. “The question is, do we invest in a short term solution and kick the can down the road – or continue to work for a longer term solution and make sure whatever dollars we’re investing, we’re getting a good return?”
All three commissioners said the county needs a new jail, but said they were still discussing whether it should be bigger than the current facility and what programs it might have.
Spokane County and the city of Spokane have been working to reduce the jail population and the disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated for years, first with the “blueprint for reform” and later with funds from the MacArthur Foundation. Since 2015, the county has won $3.8 million and has assembled a committee to make recommendations based on its own studies of the jail population.
Those recommendations include expanding electronic home monitoring, adding more pretrial services, finding ways to divert inmates to other programs and offering behavioral health services.
Curtis Hampton, a member of the county’s Justice Task Force, helped make the recommendations and said the county still hasn’t completely reviewed the data it already has. Hampton argued there are other ways to dramatically reduce the jail population and avoid the need for a new facility.
“We’ve already paid for research,” he said. “It seems like we’re devaluing the information we have already.”
Hampton argued that if the county continued to pursue the recommendations and reduce the number of people in jail who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime, are nonviolent offenders and have a bail that is less than $1,000, they may not need temporary shelters – or a $75,000 study.
“It could be a good idea, but let’s look at the recommendations we’ve already made,” he said.
Hampton isn’t the only member of that committee to call for a focus on the justice system itself, rather than a new jail. City of Spokane leaders, justice reform advocates and activists from across the community have called for systemic changes.
French said the county has made progress on some reforms, such as expanding pretrial services and resolving cases earlier. He added that there are “a whole variety of things that we’ve instituted that were not here when I first got here on the board. I think we’ve made progress.”
Commissioners likely won’t decide whether to hire a consultant for a few weeks, French said.
The Spokane International Airport, which owns the land where the Geiger facility sits and where temporary shelters could be added, would have to change its lease to accommodate additional structures. Todd Woodard, an airport spokesman, said the Spokane Airport Board has not yet discussed doing so.
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