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September 23, 2014 at 6:25 AM

Washington’s return to private prisons?

The view from Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. (Mike Siegel / Seattle Times)

The view from Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. (Mike Siegel / Seattle Times)

Washington had a decade-long flirtation with the private prison industry.

It ended badly.

There was at least one serious riot, vehement protests from inmates’ families and charges of shoddy mental-health care. When the last of 1,200-some inmates finally returned home in 2011, they brought the virulent connections to violent prison gangs and an unusual amount of contraband, including cellphones. 

The flirtation didn’t produce real cost savings, the top selling point for private prisons. It outsourced jobs, most of them to the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America, which has a troubling history in Idaho (where it is under a federal investigation), in Arizona and elsewhere.

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Despite that experience, Washington’s Department of Corrections may be reluctantly restarting the affair.

In recent weeks, the DOC posted a bid announcement seeking proposals for an unspecified number of beds, with contracts beginning “no earlier than December 1, 2014” and potentially running through 2018.

This time, as in the previous contract with Corrections Corporation of America, Washington’s DOC is seeking relief from overcrowding. The state prison system is at about 102 percent of capacity, but projected to be 1,000 beds short by 2018.

“This is flat-out contingency planning,” said DOC prisons director Dan Pacholke. He said a new contract would be from a “few hundred beds to 1,000.”

Pacholke got an up-close look at the problems of private prisons in 2004, when Washington DOC inmates rioted at a CCA-run facility in Olney Springs, Colo. He hopes to not repeat the experience, but said DOC needs a “fail-safe” to prevent serious overcrowding.

Washington lawmakers should remember the recent history with private prisons as they plan for the future beginning in January. Private prisons are not the way to go, for all the reasons documented in the Sentencing Project’s report, “Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America.”

Instead, the Legislature should take a good hard look at data recently presented to the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which was summarized in a Seattle Times editorial earlier this month.

A consultant to the task force looked at decades of data and found that Washington is a national outlier on property crime sentences, with almost no probation supervision for low-level burglars who tend to have high recidivism rates, but with unusually long sentences for serial thieves.

The data leads to a clear conclusion: tweaking property-crime sentences to emphasize lower-cost alternatives (including drug treatment) to head off the projected prison overcrowding. It has the potential to bend down Washington’s third-in-the-nation rate of property crime. And done well, it has the potential to save money.

Washington has done this type of reform before, particularly with drug crimes. It’s time to take a look at property crimes, and figure out how not to build Washington’s 13th prison, as a Seattle Times editorial package, published last year, suggested.

 

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