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April 1, 2009 6:35 PM

Corrections chief braces for deep spending cuts

Posted by Jennifer Sullivan

After two days of hearing how his agency will be cut by the Legislature, Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail fired back today with some sobering figures.

Vail said that under the proposed Senate budget the DOC will see a reduction of 1,900 inmates; the House budget proposes nearly 1,300 fewer inmates. Vail added that the agency could lose more than 1,100 employees in the cuts.

Like agency heads across the state, Vail said he understands that cuts need to be made to fill the huge state budget shortfall, but he believes lawmakers should have a better strategy for what will happen to freed inmates and shuttered facilities. Vail points to the closure of the McNeil Island Correctional Complex, which is being proposed by the Senate, as one cut that shouldn't happen.

McNeil Island, in Pierce County, is home to the prison and the state's Special Commitment Center, a mental health treatment program for civilly committed sex offenders. While the facility is the most expensive prison in the state to operate, it has undergone $165 million in renovations since 1990.

Vail said that many of the costs that fall on DOC staff running the country's only island prison accessible only by boat are from services provided to the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which runs the Special Commitment Center. If the prison closes, DSHS will have to pick up the cost of running ferries to the island, hire fire crews, security and run the island's wastewater treatment plant.

According to DSHS staff, the Senate has allotted them about $4 million to take over ferries and other services. Spokesman Steve Williams said they believe they are still going to run about $2 million short.

Vail said he would prefer seeing fewer inmates on community custody, the state's version of probation, than reductions in prison populations. Gov. Chris Gregoire, in her budget, proposed removing nearly 12,000 offenders from state supervision; the House proposes cutting 11,000 offenders and the Senate calls for reducing the supervision program by 7,100, Vail said.

Teamsters Local 117, the union that represents 6,000 prison employees across the state, protested the McNeil Island closure at the Capitol today. Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer for Local 117, believes that lawmakers haven't given enough thought toward the DOC cuts.

"This is totally a reaction to save money instead of some real thoughtful policy-making decision," Thompson said. "Our criminal justice system could use reform but this patchwork kind of thing actually causes harm. There has not been a study about whether McNeil Island should be closed."

There are currently about 27,000 offenders on supervision. There are 18,000 inmates incarcerated in the state's 15 prisons.

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Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Jennifer Sullivan
Covers the state Legislature from Olympia.

Chantal Anderson
Covers the state Legislature from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Writes about the city of Seattle and local politics.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Jim Brunner
Writes about money and power from Seattle.