Inmate Brawl Comes as Overcrowded Prison System Seeks Funding for New Units

The Department of Corrections is still trying to figure out what caused a multi-inmate brawl that caused four units at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to be put on lockdown over the weekend. As many as 65 inmates participated in the Saturday night fight, making it one of the more notable such incidents in recent years, even though no weapons were involved, DOC Secretary Bernie Warner tells Seattle Weekly this morning. About 15 people were hurt, with injuries as serious as a fractured wrist.

Among the questions the investigators are trying to determine is whether the fight was gang-related. Another obvious question bound to be asked by anyone familiar with the prison system of late: Could it have something to do with the crowded—and in some cases overcrowded—conditions?

The DOC has closed three prisons in as many years, largely to save money. Among those shut down was the facility on McNeil Island, the last island prison in the country and one that housed 1,200 inmates. “This will save the most money without compromising the safety of our staff, the offenders and the public,” then DOC secretary Eldon Vail said at the time.

But DOC spokesperson Chad Lewis says the McNeil closure was predicated on an agreement with the legislature that it would fund a new, more efficient prison. That funding never materialized.

Prison officals say it’s been challenging to manage the prison system with significantly less capacity. For one thing, the squeeze on beds means there’s less flexibility about where to put inmates. So it’s harder to ensure that rival gang members are kept apart from each other, as it is to put offenders who have special needs—whether because they’re developmentally disabled or suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (as are some inmates who are veterans)--in prisons that can handle them best.

While the DOC decides where to assign offenders, it keeps them in the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton—a facility so full that 35 to 40 offenders sleep on the floor on any given day, according to Lewis.

What’s more, the prison population in Washington is made up of more serious offenders than in most states. That’s because this state has put a priority on developing alternatives to prison, including treatment for drug offenders. “One of the myths is that the prisons are filled with people on drugs,” Lewis says. “But only about 8 percent of people in the prisons are there for drugs.” The vast majority, he maintains, have committed crimes against people.

Secretary Warner is wary of blaming crowded conditions for last weekend’s fight. But he does say that such conditions raise the puzzling question of where to put some of the participants now. “If you need to send them to another institution, that ability is really constrained,” he says.

As it happens, the DOC is almost finished building two new units at its Walla Walla facility, which have a combined capacity of more than 500 beds. Yet, there is a problem: The department doesn’t have the money to run them.

Whether or not funding will materialize depends on the budget negotiations now going on in Olympia. Governor Jay Inslee has included funding for both units in his budget. One would be up and running by July 2013, the other by March 2015. But the House has funded only one and the Senate neither of them. Given the tough budget realities, with a more than billion-dollar deficit looming, the DOC will likely have to do some fighting of its own to get the money.

 
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