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Build it and They will Come: Officials Claim Spokane, Washington Needs Bigger Jail

by Dale Chappell

Despite millions of dollars in grant money to reduce the population at Washington State’s Spokane County jail, the sheriff and police chief say the county requires a newer and larger facility to hold an ever-increasing number of prisoners.

The need for more jail beds in Spokane is nothing new. In 1967, voters approved the replacement of the 70-year-old, overcrowded county jail facilities, also combining the city’s detention center into a new city-county jail. The $7 million Public Safety Building opened next door to the courthouse in 1970.

Within five years, however, the jail reached capacity with an average population of 355 prisoners, taking only half the time predicted by county officials. Operational costs nearly doubled, from $600,000 in 1971 to $1 million in 1976. The county decided to build another, larger facility, unveiling plans for Spokane’s current six-story jail in 1982. The 460-bed facility was completed in 1986 at a cost of $22 million. With a new design that allowed prisoners more out-of-cell time, there was a sharp reduction in the number of assaults.

Nine years later, though, the jail held an average population of 555. Voters approved a temporary sales tax increase to retrofit a former Air Force barracks into the Geiger Corrections Center for low-risk offenders while also double-bunking cells in the main jail. Yet by 2004 the main jail population had reached 690, concerning the sheriff. 

“The jail becomes unsafe for our officers at about 700 inmates,” he told Spokane County commissioners.

A consulting firm hired by the county predicted the jail could face a daily population of up to 1,455 prisoners by 2015. It recommended that county officials try to defer the additional expense this would create by contracting to house federal prisoners. 

“Could new programs and new beds be parlayed into a profitable jail contractual plan?” the consultant suggested. 

But the jail was out of room. In August 2017, the county tripled its capacity for federal prisoners to 132 beds in search of additional revenue to plug a $10 million budget deficit. The jail population had grown to nearly 1,000 prisoners. The increase meant 23-hour lockdowns and sky-rocketing costs – approaching $50 million annually. Prisoner deaths increased, raising questions about jail medical care and supervision. 

A 2013 blue-ribbon panel had cited the need for reforms to reduce the demand for jail bed space. “Shifting away from an over-reliance on jail and towards community-based alternatives is critical to move us into a 21st century justice model,” the panel’s 289-page report concluded.

Spokane received grants totaling millions of dollars to create alternatives to simply locking people up. In 2016, the county set a goal to reduce its jail population by 15 percent. Instead it has grown; in fact, it increased 10 percent during the first year after the grant. Still, the MacArthur Foundation, which provided the funding, said it thinks things will turn around. 

“There are a lot of good people doing good work there, and they’ve made some course corrections,” stated MacArthur Foundation project manager Patrick Griffin. “I’m impressed.”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he believes that “if you’re not [going] to build a robust programming arm, then you better build a bunch more beds.” The city’s police chief, Craig Meidl, agreed that some type of program to reduce the jail population is what the “community longs for.”

But reducing reliance on the jail has another challenge: Cash bail. On any given day, over two-thirds of Spokane’s prisoners are pretrial detainees, and cash bail has prevented many of them from being released because they can’t afford to post bond. 

“This pretrial detention is the pipeline to mass incarceration,” observed Jaime Hawk with the ACLU of Washington, adding that most detainees end up sentenced to time served once they get to court. “We’re essentially punishing people and having them serve their sentence before they’re released.”

When the county proposed a new jail in 2011, the price tag started at $250 million but was cut to $190 million. Still, the project never reached the voters because “the community was [not] ready to invest $200 million in a jail,” Commissioner Al French stated. He is now seeking consensus from county and city officials to build a new facility to replace the main jail, which is almost 40 years old, as well as the Geiger Corrections Center, because “this can has been kicked down the road for so many years that we need to get an answer.” 

Sheriff Knezovich supports a new facility. However, City Council President Ben Stuckart said if the jail’s population is too high the county should first end its contract to house federal prisoners. Commissioner French said he is open to alternatives, such as treatment for drug offenders, who “don’t need to be incarcerated.” But City Councilman Breean Beggs noted there will likely be an agreement to replace the county’s aging jail with a newer facility that costs less to operate.

“My sense is that we’re going to get a new facility, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a bigger facility,” he said.

Meanwhile, Stuckart and Mayor David A. Condon have floated an alternative idea to build a separate city jail as part of a new criminal justice center, with space for up to 150 pre-trial detainees and other prisoners receiving programming. The city opened a new municipal court separate from the county facility in 2009, but that court currently operates in leased space. The city also pays the county about $4.7 million annually to house an average of 50 prisoners a day, according to Stuckart, who added the new facility would cost the city no more than that.

Sheriff Knezovich dismissed the proposal as a retrograde idea, saying voters had originally approved a combined city-county facility in 1967 “because it’s cheaper for the community overall.”

“I don’t think you can go into this saying you’re going to save money,” countered Stuckart. “It’s to have a more efficient system, not to cut corners.” 

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Sources: apnews.com, spokesman.com, inlander.com, krem.com