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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Like on the West Side, 10-digit dialing is coming to the 509

In this Sept. 16, 2017 photo, a person uses a smart phone in Chicago. Eastern Washington residents will need to dial local numbers with the area code starting later this month.  (STF)
In this Sept. 16, 2017 photo, a person uses a smart phone in Chicago. Eastern Washington residents will need to dial local numbers with the area code starting later this month. (STF)

Eastern Washington is about to move into a phase of the 21st century that was inevitable, but is also a pain in the patootie.

In a few weeks, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission notes, you won’t be able to call across the street or downtown or your kid’s cellphone by punching just seven digits into your phone. You’ll have to preface all your local numbers with 509, so every call will take 10 punches.

Unless, of course, you never punch in the numbers and just scroll through your contacts directory that comes standard on most phones. In that case, the area code might already be added. You’ll only need to remember to punch in 509 when you’re calling a new or little used number, like the newspaper to complain that your paper wasn’t delivered.

There’s a reasonable explanation for this, the commission reports. The nation is adding a new three-digit line, 988, to the current menu that includes 911 for emergency services and 211 for essential community services. Dialing or punching 988 will route a person to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

It won’t stop from connecting you to the Suicide Prevention Hotline if you keep dialing or punching the four other digits in a current phone number that begins with 988. To avoid that, all calls in the 509 area code, not just those to exchanges that start with 988, will become a 10-digit dial.

The three numbers after an area code are called prefixes. Some people call them “exchanges,” and those of a particular age may recall when the first two digits were written as letters, not numbers. (Note to youngsters: That’s the real reason there are letters on your phone. It wasn’t an early system for texting.)

In Spokane, the 62 exchange was MAin in downtown Spokane and the 92 exchange stood for VAlley. The problem with using letters for an exchange was some combinations didn’t work well. Starting a number with 98 would have had to create the WUhan exchange, which until two years ago wouldn’t have meant anything to most people and would have been part of some QAnon conspiracy theory shortly after that.

The switch to all digits opened up many more prefixes, which were needed with the explosion of cellphones. The 988 prefixes in Eastern Washington are primarily those connected to a cellular company that operates in and around Odessa.

It could be argued, possibly by 21st century Luddites, that it would be easier to find new phone numbers for those cellular customers to get used to in Lincoln County than for everyone in Eastern Washington to get used to 10-digit dialing.

On the plus side, however, folks in the 509, which has been all of Eastern Washington’s area code for almost 65 years, are only now catching up to the rest of Washington. Since 1995, Western Washington’s 206 area code has been split off into four other area codes and all of those area codes went to 10-digit dialing in 2017.

But the change is inevitable. So take it from a Spokane transplant to the West Side: It takes a little time to get used to dialing 10 digits. But it takes even more time to remember not to dial 1 before dialing those 10.

High Court defines ‘cruel’

The Washington Constitution and the U.S. Constitution both forbid cruel punishment, but the state’s is more protective, the state Supreme Court said last week. While the federal document forbids “cruel and unusual punishment” the state charter leaves out “unusual.”

It explained a ruling last year in which it ordered a 77-year-old inmate to be moved to different level of confinement when COVID-19 struck. Robert Rufus Williams has hypertension and diabetes, and previously suffered a stroke. He was in a cell with three other inmates, but with no toilet or sink. He had to wait for corrections officers to unlock his cell and help him to the bathroom.

Williams, who is serving a 22-year sentence for assaulting an ex-girlfriend, was at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, when COVID-19 struck and he eventually tested positive. He was moved to the infirmary at Airway Heights, treated and returned eventually to Coyote Ridge.

He wanted the court to sentence him to home confinement with a relative. The justices didn’t do that, but they did tell the Department of Corrections to accommodate his condition, which the department did by placing him in a cell with no cellmates and a sink, and access to ADA compliant restroom facilities.

Inmates should not be placed at significant risk of injury or harm, or deprived of basic human dignity, the justices said, or in conditions “not reasonably necessary to accomplish a legitimate penological goal.”

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