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For Lease: Never-Used 525-Bed Oregon Jail, $45 Million or Best Offer

A seemingly good idea before the housing market collapsed, the 525-bed, $58 million Wapato Jail has sat empty in Portland, Oregon since construction was completed in 2004. County taxpayers are paying approximately $5 million annually on debt service for the facility plus $400,000 to maintain the empty building each year.

During his campaign in 2006, Multnomah County Commission Chairman Ted Wheeler vowed to open the Wapato Jail. Since then, however, county officials have repeatedly tried, but failed, to do so.

Most recently the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) rejected a county proposal to lease Wapato as a minimum-security alcohol and drug treatment facility. Citing declining prison population forecasts and unstable state funding, on February 10, 2010, ODOC Director and former state senator Max Williams testified before the legislature’s Ways and Means Committee that the state should postpone a decision about leasing the Wapato Jail. Williams acknowledged that the state expects significant prison growth by 2013, but recommended that officials wait until 2011 to reconsider options for increasing prison capacity.

ODOC officials claim they could complete construction on the department’s own stalled Junction City prison for about the cost of leasing Wapato. Additionally, at least $17 million in start-up costs, remodeling and upgrades would be required because the Wapato Jail was designed to house short-term prisoners and does not meet many of the requirements for a prison, according to Williams. The difference between Wapato and a state prison is akin to the difference between a motel room and a house, Williams told lawmakers. Peter Ozanne, the county’s deputy chief operating officer for public safety, questioned the ODOC’s cost estimates for retrofitting the jail.

Another sticking point is that the county wants to lease the facility rather than sell it, because county officials expect they will eventually need the additional bed space. The ODOC, however, is only interested in purchasing Wapato outright. The costs of retrofitting the jail are too high for prison officials to consider only a 10-year lease that likely would not be renewed, said Nathan Allen, ODOC’s planning and budget administrator. Plus the City of Portland would have to change the zoning for the jail, which currently allows the facility to only house county prisoners.

Ozanne believes the county can still make a case for the lease option when demand for prison bed space increases. The ODOC has not ruled out the Wapato Jail entirely, either.
“There may be an alternative to negotiate a little harder with the county,” said Allen.
However, the county will have to lower its $45 million asking price. “The prospect of getting the facility at a fairly reduced rate does change the economics of it some,” Allen stated. “Though I am not sure what political climate would be in that conversation.”

“It’s certainly disappointing,” admitted Ozanne, who indicated the county was continuing to examine other lease options for the jail. The Citizens Crime Commission agreed, pledging to consider all available opportunities.

When Wapato opened in 2004, the editorial board of The Oregonian – Oregon’s largest newspaper – declared that it would be “nuts” for the ODOC to build any more prisons so long as the Wapato Jail sat empty. Since then the ODOC has opened two new prisons – but has been unable to afford to open 1,200 medium-security beds at one of those facilities – and expanded two others. The state is paying $130 million per biennium on prison debt service.

On February 24, 2010, The Oregonian’s editorial board again suggested that it “doesn’t make much sense” for the ODOC to push ahead with stalled construction on a new prison. Rather, the newspaper noted that in 2009, nearly half of the 5,027 prisoners released from ODOC facilities returned to the Portland area. Accordingly, the paper’s editors recommended that the ODOC consider Wapato as a re-entry facility, “because cementing inmate ties to family can smooth re-entry and reduce recidivism rates.” Of course, not imprisoning people in the first place accomplishes the same goal at a much lower social and financial cost.

Sources: The Oregonian,

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