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No Room for 900 New Washington Prison “Rugs”

“Every day I'm getting emails from staff staff who are concerned about safety,” said Tracey A. Thompson, the Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 3,600 Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) guards. With approximately 16,000 prisoners, Washington state prisons are currently operating at 102 percent of capacity, with an almost 6 percent population increase anticipated by 2016.

In March 2012, prison officials created 140 extra beds by double-bunking single cells at the State Reformatory in Monroe. The Seattle Times reported on March 26, 2012 that the WDOC was also considering plans to reopen dilapidated units at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and renovate units at a recently-shuttered juvenile facility in Thurston County.

The crowding is most visible at the Washington Corrections Center (WCC) in Shelton. Designed to house 720 prisoners when it opened in 1964, the facility now holds around 1,700.

Traditionally referred to as “fish,” new WDOC prisoners are known as “rugs” because they will likely spend their first days in custody sleeping on thin mats on the concrete floor due to overcrowding.

Prisoners are not happy about having a third prisoner stuffed into their 6’ x 9’ double-bunked cells. “We don’t want any rugs in here. It’s crowded enough,” said prisoner William Rivers of Wenatchee, Washington. “It’s the worst. It’s crowded and we’re [locked up] 22 hours a day.”

The overcrowding is complicated by the fact that the prisoner population has become more violent, more mentally ill, and more likely to include sex offenders, gang members and drug addicts.

“We have a very compact system with offenders who are high-risk to reoffend,” noted WDOC Secretary Bernie Warner. WCC Associate Superintendent Dan White agreed that overcrowding creates a safety risk for both prisoners and guards.

“Any time that we have to put folks on the floor, there is potential for an increase in violence,” he said. “We can’t move anybody where there’s no space.”

Mandatory sentencing laws, including Washington’s three-strikes law, are responsible for the unprecedented prison population growth, stated WDOC spokesman Chad Lewis. WDOC officials estimate they will need to add 900 beds – an increase of 5.6 percent – within the next three years.

The WDOC had planned to open a new prison in Western Washington in 2016, but the opening of that facility has been delayed until at least 2018 due to budget deficits, according to Lewis.

Sources: Associated Press, Seattle Times

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