OLYMPIA, Wash. -- It's minutes before the daily lockdown in the Thurston County Jail, and the more than 400 inmates playing cards, watching TV or just killing time in the general population holding areas will soon be locked in their cells.
Many will be crammed three to a cell. On any given day there are about 25 inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
"We're packed in a facility that was built in the 1970s," said Karen Daniels, chief deputy for corrections with the Thurston County Sheriff's Office. "I can't remember a time when we didn't have inmates on the floor."
Thurston County is not alone. Jails are operated by 37 of the state's 39 counties, and 20 cities. At least two counties, including Thurston, and more than a dozen cities often have to rent beds in other counties.
While overcrowding in the state prison system gets more attention - the Legislature this year approved $50 million for about 500 new prison beds - counties have to find the money themselves to operate and expand jails.
"If we're at capacity and one of my officers makes an arrest ... I have to make the decision: Do we not incarcerate that person, or do we have someone make room or do we release someone?" said Pacific County Sheriff John Didion. "That's a reality, and I'm not comfortable with it."
Didion leads the corrections committee of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which recommends that county jails with excess space be designated as regional jails to offset overcrowding.
The report also argues that counties with crowded jails should get state money to build new facilities, provided they serve as regional jails that would receive special-needs inmates with mental illness, addictions or chronic illness.
The report was written by Bruce Kuennen, a staff member of the sheriff's association. He visited every one of the state's jails last year and found that some are so overcrowded they need to ship their inmates somewhere else, such as Yakima or Benton County.
While the Legislature has already approved the voluntary creation of regional jails, Kuennen's report notes that the state hasn't come up with any money to back the idea.
Meanwhile, for the last two decades, arrests and convictions for drug crimes, prison sentences and the mentally ill inmate population have all increased, according to the report.
"The time has come to fund the construction of new jail capacity, at least in those jurisdictions most desperately in need of that capacity," the report argued.
In 2004, Thurston County voters rejected a $103 million regional justice center in Tumwater. Last year county commissioners decided to put a smaller $24 million jail on the same site.
But Daniels said having two jails - the current one at the courthouse plus a satellite in Tumwater - will create new problems, including staff duplication and prisoner transport, which increases the chance of problems such as the attack on a corrections officer in an elevator last month.
While Daniels blames the attack more on an outdated building than on crowding, she said the higher inmate population meant only one officer was available to transport a prisoner. Since the attack, the policy has changed, and inmates must now have their handcuffs chained to their waists during transport.
Daniels said crowding also has increased the number of inmate disruptions. In 10 years, inmate-on-inmate assaults have increased from 87 10 years ago to 146 last year, and attacks on jail staff from 10 in 1995 to 15 in 2005.
Jerry Haskell, 40, of Olympia, awaiting trial on charges of possession of methamphetamine, has been in and out of jail on similar charges for more than a decade. He sees more inmates each time he arrives.
"You got 40 guys in a room meant for 20 people, you tend to get on people's nerves," he said. "Some of us, we make the mistake of coming in here, but we like to do our time quietly."
Rep. Al O'Brien, chairman of the House Criminal Justice & Corrections Committee, said he'd consider whatever suggestions the committee presents next year, including state financial aid.
"A lot of the counties are just busting at the seams," said O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace. "I know it's a problem."
The closest model for a regional jail in the state is in Chelan County, which also serves Douglas County, which does not have a jail.
The most crowded jails, Kuennen said, are in Thurston, Spokane, Whatcom and Kittitas counties.
Cities in King County contract for 400 to 500 beds as far away as Yakima County. Other western Washington cities rent beds in eastern Washington, notably the Benton County Jail. Chelan County may soon accept inmates from Port Townsend.
"We're all just at the max," Didion, the Pacific County sheriff, said. "It's a daily adventure trying to cope. We have to prioritize the safety of our citizens and the dangerousness of the people we incarcerate."
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