Monroe Prison Eyed for Possible Closure

A team of consultants tasked with recommending prison closures will visit the Monroe Correctional Complex on Tuesday. "I know their specific focus in on the Washington State Reformatory," says Superintendent Scott Frakes, referring to the 740-bed, medium-security unit that is one of five within the 2,500-bed complex. He notes that one thing the consulting firm, Christopher Murray and Associates, is taking into account is the physical condition of prison buildings. The 100-year Reformatory--a surprisingly elegant building with a brick fa├žade and recessed Ionic columns--is the oldest facility on the site. It's also the nearest prison of its kind to Seattle.

At the direction of the cash-strapped Legislature, the state Office of Financial Management hired Christopher Murray to come up with a plan for cutting 1,500 prison beds throughout the state. The firm is visiting other prisons too, and Frakes says he doesn't know whether the Reformatory has a better chance of closure than, say, the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. Community officials there are sounding the alarm about the economic consequences of a prison closure. Frakes, too, is taking the possibility seriously. "I have to be a little bit concerned," he says. He notes that the Reformatory employs 200 staffers, houses the complex's only hospital and, since many of the inmates come from the Seattle area, is conveniently located for friends and family who visit.

In addition, the Reformatory has 1,000 community volunteers who put on an array of programs--"more than any other male prison I've ever worked at," says Frakes, a 27-year veteran of the state Department of Corrections. There are programs for African American inmates, for alcoholics, for prisoners who want to take college-level classes, for those working on remedial literacy by reading to dogs (really).

Carol Estes, who runs the University Behind Bars program at Monroe, which offers college credit, is similarly concerned. "The Washington State Reformatory is the closest thing we have to a bright spot in the Washington prison system," she says, adding that prisoners who are eligible for transfer to a minimum-security prison because of good behavior don't want to leave. "I constantly have men coming up to me saying, 'the only way for me to stay is to commit an infraction.' "

She frets that inmates will become estranged from their families, particularly their children, should the Reformatory close. McNeil Island Corrections Center, near Tacoma, is not that far off, but she says that the ferry ride to the island makes it a burdensome trip.

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