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February 8, 2010 -- Spokesman-Review (WA)

Opinion: Do The Math On Pine Lodge

By Rep. Joe Schmick, Special to The Spokesman-Review

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No legislator would welcome the closure of a vital, job-producing and community-impacting facility within his or her district. So when the Pine Lodge Corrections Center in Medical Lake appeared on Gov. Christine Gregoire's list of recommended closures as part of her efforts to deal with our state's $2.6 billion budget shortfall, I felt I had to look at this as objectively as possible to make the best decision for the offenders, the community and the state as a whole.

Last weekend, I joined with other local elected officials in calling for a town hall meeting to discuss this issue in depth. We had a great turnout with Pine Lodge staff and community leaders in attendance.

One of the key factors in making this decision is capacity. The Washington state Department of Corrections says there is excess capacity in the prison system, thus making the decision to close Pine Lodge "doable" in terms of our state's present and long-term prison needs.

However, while I would agree that we currently have some unused capacity for the men's divisions, the same case cannot be made in terms of capacity and facilities for women.

Based on a DOC facilities report looking at the previous three years, the trend line for women in our prison system is increasing 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent a year. More women enter the system each year than leave. Plus, if Pine Lodge closes, the capacity at the other two women's facilities -- Mission Creek in Belfair and Washington Corrections in Gig Harbor -- would be pushed past "operational" levels and into "emergency" numbers by the influx of new inmates. The resulting overcrowded facilities would have women sleeping on the floor and prison staff maxed out in terms of managing the increased population -- not an ideal situation for all involved.

Another important element is the different cost of housing inmates at each facility. Over the last five years, Pine Lodge has had the lowest cost per offender per day, compared with the other two women's facilities.

The future costs of recidivism -- when released offenders commit further crimes resulting in incarceration -- also need to be weighed. At Pine Lodge, they have an intense prerelease counseling program which has shown extremely low recidivism. Closer proximity to family increases visitation, which studies have shown also decreases recidivism.

Another factor that doesn't sit well with me is the fact that while the governor proposes closing Eastern Washington's only women's facility, her capital budget proposal includes plans to build a new 300-bed women's facility in Western Washington. With an estimated $75.2 million in design and construction costs from 2011 through 2014, the governor's estimated savings of $10.2 million by closing Pine Lodge fails to pass the straight-face test.

Finally, the community and the people affected by closing Pine Lodge need to be considered.

At the forefront are local, family-wage jobs, the decrease of which would have a negative impact on the local economy.

Pine Lodge inmates also contribute to the local community in several tangible and measurable ways:

* In 2009, more than 7,000 pounds of food produced from the facility garden were donated to local food banks.

* Six women from Pine Lodge operate the Medical Lake Recycling Center.

* The women cut and pile wood which is given to low-income families and the elderly for heating needs.

* The women make blankets, hats, gloves and other clothing items for the homeless and other organizations.

* The women operate as groundskeepers for both Eastern State Hospital and Lakeland Village.

* Community residents gave 5,902 hours of service to Pine Lodge offenders in 2009.

All of these areas enrich others in the community and cannot be dismissed lightly.

When all is said and done, the supposed motivation for closing Pine Lodge is to save money. However, the math just doesn't add up. The state even spent $500,000 on an independent study to see which facilities could be combined or closed. This study did not recommend closure for Pine Lodge.

"Penny wise and pound foolish" is the axiom that comes to mind. Simply put, the state of Washington, the employees and their families, the community and the women's prison system at large cannot afford to close Pine Lodge Corrections Center.

State Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, represents the 9th Legislative District, which includes Medical Lake.

Also visit our "WA State News & Activism" section.

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