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December 24, 2008 -- Spokesman-Review (WA)

State Targets Women's Prison In Medical Lake For Closure

By Richard Roesler

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

OLYMPIA -- Citing the state's budget crisis, prison officials want to close the Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women, Washington's only women's prison east of the Cascades.

As early as next summer, the state would start transferring roughly 350 inmates to a prison near Vancouver, Wash. About 140 workers would have to shift to jobs elsewhere or be laid off.

"It was pretty clear that based on the fiscal constraints we're going to be facing, that we need to close a facility," said Dick Morgan, director of the state Department of Corrections' prisons division.

The campus of the Medical Lake prison includes some aging buildings that need costly renovations, he said, "so it became the most likely candidate."

By closing the facility, the state would save about $14 million over the next two years, he said.

Although state lawmakers will have the final say, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed billions of dollars in reduced spending over the next two years, forcing state agencies to find ways to wring that money from their budgets.

Pine Lodge Superintendent Walker Morton said he's urging staff at the minimum-security prison to try not to worry, that the closure is just a proposal. He's been told a closure wouldn't be until February 2010, he said. "We just have to keep our eyes and ears open until the legislators do their thing," he said.

Morton met with the prison's inmates Tuesday and told them the news. Most were understanding, he said.

Closing Pine Lodge is only one facet of Gregoire's proposed $125 million in savings at the Department of Corrections. And the agency isn't alone; the Department of Social and Health Services is trying to figure out how to cut spending by nearly $1.3 billion, the Department of Health by $75 million.

Morgan said prison officials would be happy to consider money-saving alternatives to closing Pine Lodge. But the state is facing 1,000 fewer inmates than expected, Morgan said, and in the face of a massive budget shortfall, it's hard to justify keeping all prisons open.

News of the proposal, which initially trickled out in phone calls and e-mails, stunned workers.

"Some people can't believe this," said Dawnel Southwick, a secretary supervisor at the prison for the past nine years. "This facility is not the run-down, broken-down, not-going-to-survive-until-next-week facility that they're making it out to be."

"These are good, family-wage jobs," said Matthew Pederson, executive director of the West Plains Chamber of Commerce.

The state has two prisons with female inmates in Western Washington. The Washington State Corrections Center for Women is near Gig Harbor, and Mission Creek is near Shelton. Larch Corrections Center, where the Pine Lodge inmates would be transferred, houses men but would be converted.

"I've never heard of them closing a prison," said Marye Jorgenson, who works in Pine Lodge's records department. "You keep up hope that if people fight hard and long enough, we can hang on, hopefully through this recession."

The Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents most of the workers, said the state instead should look at ways to bring more money into the treasury.

"I don't think we can cut our way out of this huge deficit," union spokesman Tim Welch said. One obvious place to look, he said, are the "huge tax loopholes" for businesses.

For inmates from Eastern Washington, the transfer to Larch would mean being hundreds of miles from loved ones.

"It's going to devastate families, and most women in prison have children," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, a sentencing-reform group in Colville. "If you move them to where you can't see them in a day and get home, most people won't be able to afford to visit."

Morgan concedes that the move could be tough on Eastern Washington families. But he said most inmates, like most Washingtonians, are from the West Side.

Patricia Gaimari said closing the prison would disrupt a valuable network of more than 170 volunteers who teach, counsel, minister and support inmates and their families. "I've told some of my volunteers, and they're devastated," the Pine Lodge corrections specialist said.

Volunteers provide clothes for women upon release. They run a Girl Scouts program for girls whose mothers are incarcerated. They come up with back-to-school supplies, holiday gifts and Mother's Day family celebrations that help keep families intact.

"The impact is going to be far greater than just the 140 staffers at Pine Lodge," Gaimari said.

Among other changes proposed by the Department of Corrections:

* Closing two units at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.

* Cutting 40 staffers at DOC headquarters.

* Saving $3 million by cutting nurses and medications.

* Freezing all pay raises "until further notice."

* Reducing or eliminating firearms training at some prisons.

"As you can tell from this list, the situation is serious," Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail wrote in a memo to staffers Friday.

Gregoire has also proposed changes that would take 12,000 people off probation and cut probation staff by 400 people. Very sick prisoners would be released. Drug and property criminals who aren't U.S. citizens would be deported. And some drug offenders' sentences would be shortened.

In addition, family and parenting programs for inmates would be cut, as would a "job hunter" program for inmates being released. Classes and drug treatment in prison would also be cut.

In another e-mail, Vail also said that lawmakers may make changes during the legislative session. "At this time, no one can predict what our budget will look like when it is passed in April," he wrote, "but the changes coming to the agency are likely to be significant."

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