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Washington Pork Refuses to Be Trimmed: Guard Towers Stay

In the August and November, 1995, issues of PLN we reported the passage of House Bill (HB) 2010 and the DOC's 1996-97 budget by the Washington state legislature. Among HB 2010's provisions were instructions for the DOC to study the use of electrical perimeter fences to replace guard towers. In the DOC's budget appropriation the legislature claimed it would "save" $1.5 million by reducing tower staffing at various prisons. At the time PLN was skeptical that any such "savings" would actually materialize. PLN was right.

In August, 1995, the DOC duly announced it would eliminate 23 guard tower positions at prisons in Clallam Bay (CBCC), Shelton (WCC), Walla Walla (WSP), McNeil Island (MICC) and the Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe. No guards would have actually been laid off as a result of the positions eliminated. Instead, tower guards would have been transferred to other duties and the projected "savings" would have been through attrition and unfilled vacancies. Video cameras and motion detectors were ordered to compensate for the staffing reduction.

The guards meanwhile squealed like, well, stuck pigs. The Washington Public Employees Association (WPEA), which is the union that represents prison guards, filed suit over the tower staffing reduction. On September 27, 1995, Thurston county superior court judge Paula Casey granted the guards a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to halt the tower staffing reductions. The court held that the labor contract between the DOC and WPEA required that the DOC bargain with the union over "safety" issues and that tower staffing was a "safety" issue.

On March 29, 1996, the WPEA and DOC agreed to bargain over tower staffing. The agreement eventually reached by the parties resulted in all 23 guard tower positions remaining, unscathed, and the DOC reimbursing the union for $37,000 in legal expenses they spent challenging the action. The agreement lifted Judge Casey's injunction and settled four other matters related to staffing, time clocks and smoking policy. Despite the fanfare with which the projected cuts were announced by the DOC and the legislature, the fact that no cuts were actually made and that the legislature wound up appropriating another $650,000 to pay for tower staffing in fiscal year 1996 received no media attention whatsoever. Which would leave people with the impression that something actually happened.

In the meantime, the DOC duly complied with the legislature's command to study perimeter security technologies that would minimize or eliminate the need for manned guard towers. In the February, 1994, issue of PLN we reported the CA DOC's installation and use of high voltage electrified fences for perimeter security which replaced many guard towers. The California fences cost up to $375 per linear foot and have caused considerable environmental damage by killing birds and small animals that come into contact with it. This is also the most expensive perimeter security system.

Of eight medium, maximum and close custody Washington prisons, a total of 49 Full Time Employees (FTEs) are used for perimeter patrols while 183.5 FTEs are used to staff a total of 40 prison guard towers at the eight prisons. In addition to guard towers and perimeter patrols at WCC, WCCW, TRCC and AHCC; WCC, TRCC, MICC and AHCC use fence sensors; MICC and AHCC use buried cables and TRCC, MICC and AHCC use microwave sensors which form an invisible electric field to detect intruders.

The DOC's report concluded that neither WSP nor WSR, which have walled perimeters, are adaptable to electronic perimeter security systems. The DOC report concluded: "Efficiencies can be obtained in Washington state correctional facilities by the proper selection, installation, and use of electronic intrusion devices when deployed in combination with traditional perimeter systems." The report noted that in 1992 Georgia eliminated 173.9 tower positions in 19 prisons by installing electronic fences and using perimeter patrols, saving $4.5 million. California eliminated several hundred guard tower positions by installing its electric fences and using armed perimeter patrols. The study concluded that further study was needed to determine what should actually be done with regards to Washington DOC tower positions.

Regardless of what may be cheaper or more effective, any efforts at reducing prison expenses in a meaningful manner must confront the fact that some 72% of all prison expenses are directly related to staff salary and benefits. Since the Washington DOC has more than 6,200 employees to care for about 12,000 prisoners (this is the highest staff to prisoner ratio of any state prison system in the US; only the federal BOP has a higher staff-prisoner ratio), it is not surprising that there is steadfast opposition by DOC employees to any measure that would interrupt their feeding frenzy at the public trough. Given judge Casey's ruling in WPEA v. State Corrections, Thurston County Cause Number 94-2-030784, it doesn't appear that any reductions in WA DOC staff will take place any time soon. Which raises the question of how do you trim the fat when the pork refuses to be trimmed?

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Related legal case

WPEA v. Dept. of State Corrections