Federal money given to Spokane County to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic could be spent to expand jail capacity in the county, under a plan under consideration by county commissioners.
The proposal to erect temporary jail buildings meant to last at least 15 years was under consideration in Spokane County even before the coronavirus became a problem in Washington.
But jail officials now argue the units should be paid for with money provided by Congress through Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funding because the extra space would allow them to keep inmates farther apart during the pandemic.
The Spokane County Jail has been overcrowded for decades and normally has between 900 and 1,000 inmates in custody between the downtown jail and the Geiger Corrections Center on the West Plains.
After COVID-19 cases were detected in Spokane County, the jail population was reduced significantly to allow inmates to social distance while incarcerated. Judges allowed inmates with low bonds, misdemeanor arrests and health conditions to be released.
On Tuesday, Detention Services Director Mike Sparber and jail staff asked the county commissioners to consider using a portion of the $90 million the county received for COVID-19 response and recovery on fabric buildings, known as Sprung Structures. In interviews Wednesday, Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French said they were considering the proposal but had not made a decision.
“It’s an interesting option,” French said. “I think it’s worth pursuing. Whether we actually do it or not, I think the jury’s still out on that.”
Kerns said he still was waiting on a feasibility study on the project, which commissioners approved up to $50,000 for in February. He said if the land is suitable for building a temporary jail, he believes the structures could give staff the space it needs to handle a potential outbreak.
“It would give us that flexibility and level of safety,” Kerns said. “We’ve seen a lot of different facilities across the country in jails and prisons where there was outbreaks in the the jail system, and we don’t want to see that in Spokane.”
Sparber said he wanted to avoid returning to overcrowding in the jail, but anticipates a wave of inmates could return when the courts reopen as normal.
“We would like to not go back to that,” Sparber said. “I think that the community would be agreeable to keeping those in smaller clusters to get a better control on not only how we’re managing our population, but how we’re using the smaller groups as a strategy to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak or COVID-19.”
Detention Services first asked for the temporary structures in February so they could move a few hundred inmates into them and have a “direct supervision” management style, where inmates are allowed out of their cells and into common areas most of the day. In February, costs for the project ranged from $6 million to $16 million depending on the type of structures.
When commissioners and Sparber were discussing price Tuesday, estimates for architecture and materials were closer to $4 million. That number is likely not the final price once other costs are included.
In addition to allowing for social distancing, Sparber said the temporary buildings could be a space to house inmates while commissioners decide on a new jail. Those structures can last between 15 and 25 years.
If commissioners use CARES funding, they must purchase the structures before Dec. 30. The structures themselves take a few weeks to build, according to the Sprung Structures website.
The money that could be used for this project is Spokane County’s portion of the CARES Act, which Congress passed at the end of March.
Spokane County, which received about $90 million, is the only local government in Eastern Washington with a population large enough to qualify for a direct payment from the federal government. The funding only can be used on COVID-19-related expenses, cannot be used to balance a local government’s budget and must be used by the end of the year.
The county also recently received the results of a survey with more than 1,100 responses about how they should spend it. The most common responses from the public were rental assistance, child care, food, assistance for businesses, testing and other medical supplies.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, a member of the county’s Law and Justice Council, said Spokane County should focus its efforts on pretrial supervision instead of spending COVID-19 recovery money on a costly new jail building.
“The Sprung Structures are very expensive, and there’s not data that showed they would work in terms of reducing crime,” he said.
Beggs argued releasing low-level offenders and supervising them is cheaper for the county and will lead to more stability in people’s lives and less crime. He said the city is working on standing up its own pretrial system, which he sees as a good budget practice and a longer-term solution.
Beggs said he also believed that CARES Act funding should be spent on business recovery and helping nonprofits that have exhausted their resources helping those affected by the virus. Citing the county’s CARES Act funding survey, he said most members of the public would prefer the money be spent on food, rent and business assistance, not on the criminal justice system.
Sabrina Ryan-Helton, a Spokane client advocate for the Bail Project, said she sees the historically low number of inmates in the Spokane County Jail as one of the only good things to come out of the pandemic. She said building more jail structures would be going “leaps and bounds backwards” from the progress the community has made.
“This funding is intended to help our economy recover, and incarceration is hell on the economy,” she said. “It takes people away from being able to work jobs and (many) of the people sitting in jail are working these jobs that are considered front line.”
Ryan-Helton was one of several members of the Bail Project, a revolving bail fund and nonprofit that advocates for the elimination of cash bail, who signed a letter urging the county, judges and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system to reduce the number of people in jail during the pandemic.
Curtis Hampton, an activist and member of the Law and Justice Council’s Racial Equity Committee, said CARES Act funding is an opportunity to invest in “Black, Brown and poor” communities that have been hit hard by COVID-19 and to get ahead of mass incarceration.
He said he recognizes jail is an important part of public safety and that some people should be there, but the county should focus on reform, not adding more jail beds.
“We cannot afford to go back to where we were pre-COVID-19,” he said. “If we do things the way we’ve always done business, we’ll be right where we were, building a new jail. Let’s give these people some hope, (because) some of the people who were in trouble prior to COVID-19 are really in trouble now.”
French said commissioners would likely need to meet with members of the Law and Justice Council to discuss the proposal and with the courts to determine how many people may be going through the justice system in the future and if the jail could become overcrowded again.
Kerns and French said they likely would make a decision based on cost, what the courts and other stakeholders say, and the feasibility of using the land outside the Geiger Corrections Center to place the temporary structures.
“We’ve got a lot of needs out there right now that we need to navigate our way through,” French said. “Cost is going to be a major part of this conversation. We very well could be in a situation where even if we wanted to do it, there are too many other needs that will compete.”
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