Northwest News

Backup plan for overflowing Washington prisons: Send inmates to Michigan

Washington’s backup plan for dealing with its prison space crunch might benefit a private company while making it harder on families to visit their incarcerated loved ones.

Even if state lawmakers agree to build a new prison in south Thurston County to house a growing inmate population — no sure thing — officials could still send inmates out of state while it’s being built.

“In the short term we’re still going to have some challenges,” Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said, noting it would take until 2020 to convert the former juvenile detention center in Grand Mound to an adult prison. “I don’t know in two years or so whether we run out of our ability to manage them safely and we might need to look at out-of-state beds again.”

A deal Warner’s agency signed May 13 with Florida-based GEO Group provides that outlet. The private prison company said the contract would allow its North Lake Correctional Facility in rural Michigan to house up to 1,000 Washington inmates.

The company said in a news release announcing the deal that inmates are expected to start arriving late this year at the Baldwin, Michigan, facility, which is preparing to reopen after sitting idle. But the Corrections Department contradicted that claim in its own statement, insisting there are no current plans to use the contract.

The agency said it signed the deal to keep a contingency plan in place after the expiration of a contract with another private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America.

The state would pay GEO $60 per day per inmate, for a total the company said could reach $24 million a year. The contract runs through August 2018 and can be extended for two extra years.

Prisons run by GEO have faced accusations of poor living conditions and dangerous practices. GEO says its facilities are safe. The company runs a federal detention center for immigrants on the Tacoma Tideflats where detainees went on hunger strikes throughout 2014.

Washington has no prisoners in other states today. As recently as 2009, it had inmates scattered around the country at private prisons in places such as Minnesota, Arizona and Oklahoma.

Loren Taylor, who worked for the Department of Corrections at that time and now advocates for prison reform, said prisoners were picked to be sent out of state as punishment.

It’s hard enough for families to visit their loved ones incarcerated on the other side of the state, Taylor said, let alone the other side of the country.

“You’re punishing the families again,” said Taylor of Ocean Shores.

Out-of-state prisoners came home as Washington’s prison population shrank, but the decline proved temporary.

The latest growth has strained a system that closed three prisons as part of Great Recession-era budget cuts. At 16,700 inmates, Washington’s prisons were at 99.7 percent of capacity in April. By 2020, the state expects to need about 1,000 more beds in medium-security units, where the space crunch is worst.

Lawmakers are considering sentencing reform and greater use of local jails, but both are likely to free up space mainly in minimum-security units.