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February 27, 2008 -- The Inlander (WA)

Life on the Block

by Mick Lloyd-Owen

An authoritative voice emanates from a small room into the hallway: "Spread your cheeks." In any other office, people would probably freeze in their tracks. But here -- a typical Friday morning at the booking office of the Spokane County Jail -- it's routine. The young offender, brought in on a drug charge, has surrendered his baggy, zipper-clad clothing and is strip-searched in a holding cell by uniformed officers wearing blue rubber gloves. "Now keep your hands on the wall and show me the bottom of your left foot," the deputy says. "OK, right foot."

Welcome, young man, to "the third-largest mental institution in the state of Washington," as jail commander Capt. Jerry Brady likes to call it. Courtesy of the county taxpayer, this is where the wayward youth may spend the next several days, weeks or months with 650 of his closest friends, contemplating the error of his ways.

He's not the only one thinking about the cost of mistakes, however. The county's entire criminal justice system recently underwent a similarly discomfiting inspection. With the impending closure of the Geiger Corrections Center and a jail that is already operating way over capacity, the county hired a team of criminal justice consultants to don the rubber gloves and analyze the system from head to toe.

David Bennett, a consultant who works law enforcement agencies and judicial systems around the nation, delivered the results of a six-month, $116,000 study during a symposium of community leaders two weeks ago. The verdict? A new jail is just the tip of the iceberg. Bennett says the county's current criminal justice system needs a significant overhaul to deliver the "same justice, sooner" and that the community needs to start thinking not only of alternatives to jail, but of "jail as the alternative."

Crowding in the jail makes everything harder and more dangerous -- it causes tensions to flare, diseases to spread -- but it's not a problem you can build yourself out of. It takes a system-wide upgrade that looks at who goes to jail, why and for how long.

Among Bennett's most startling findings:

* 29 percent of felony defendants -- twice the national average -- were re-arrested while awaiting trial on their original charge.

* Defendants released before trial wait an average of 70 days between booking and the filing of charges.

* 63 percent of defendants in Superior Court cases have four or more court appearances between arraignment and disposition.

'Catch And Release'

Back in the booking office, belly chains and handcuffs jingle as more of the usual suspects are brought in. A man in overalls sprays the seats liberally with disinfectant to combat MRSA, the drug-resistant staph bacteria that ride in on the sores of meth addicts and the "spider bites" of needle users. The jail is operating in what authorities call "catch and release" mode -- as opposed to "catch and keep." The status changes from day to day, shift to shift, depending on how high the numbers are running in the jail. The facility -- designed with a capacity of 475 when it opened in 1986 -- now routinely houses anywhere from 620 to 650 inmates. The revolving door starts turning around 620. At that point, misdemeanants -- with the exception of domestic violence cases -- are booked and then released onto the street after agreeing to report to the Public Safety Building within 24 hours to schedule a court date.

"Some are so elated to be released that they actually do [report]," says jail Deputy Carolyn Hoschka. "Many do not." She says the word is out on the street: People come into booking expecting to be released. A visiting reporter with no street smarts leaves a coffee cup unattended and is mildly rebuked. "That could be a weapon," a deputy says. The smiley and ever-helpful Sgt. Phil Tyler -- built like a tank -- hands the visitor a disinfectant wipe. "I noticed you left your clipboard on the counter. Might not want to do that -- MRSA's a problem around here." Hoschka -- along with numerous jail staff who spoke to the Inlander -- complains that the booking area of the jail is susceptible to a dangerous level of overcrowding.

During crunch times, it's just too small to handle the volume of people. When it gets to an unsafe level, the jail goes into "Red Light" status -- as was the case recently -- when they won't even bring people in for booking until they manage to clear some bodies. A corrections deputy in the control room says it's not uncommon to see police cars lined up five and six deep outside the sally port during a Red Light. And as long as those patrol officers sit there, they're not responding to calls.

Even though the staff insists today's a slow morning, the problem becomes obvious as a shuttle of prisoners arrives from Benton County -- all being held for the state Department of Corrections or the U.S. Marshals Service. Twelve male prisoners must be processed and searched at once, and suddenly there is nowhere an observer can stand where he's not in the way. Quipping that the jail is "much more than a bed-and-breakfast," jail commander Brady likens it more to a small city, complete with infirmary, mental ward, and food-service component that delivers more than 800,000 meals per year to its guests. The annual operating budget is currently $19.6 million -- nearly 13 percent of the county's total operating budget.

"The building is tired, and there are maintenance issues," says sheriff's Lt. Mike Rohrscheib. "It's like it has aged in dog years. Or like a Chevy that went into service as a taxi instead of a family car," he says. The building is in service 24 hours a day, 365 days per year -- yet parts of the jail have never been painted in the 20 years since it opened. Staff and prisoner traffic flows through two main elevators in the center of the building. If one fails, as it did recently, it results in a lockdown so that the remaining elevator is free for emergencies.

Once a suspect has been booked, he or she is taken upstairs to the classification section -- like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter stories. Deputies check the suspect's record and how much room is available in the jail's "pods" (such as the mental health and maximum security wings) and assign inmates accordingly. It's a time-consuming process. According to jail staff, this area bottlenecks during busy times. (There is apparently no rhyme or reason to when these periods hit.) Freshly clad in blue overalls, lovely pink socks and salmon-colored rubber slippers, the new inmates are temporarily held here while staff determine their risk factor, transport them back and forth from their initial hearings and at the same time monitor those with suicidal tendencies and people coming off drugs. The "DTs," or delirium tremens, from alcohol withdrawal are the worst.

"They are amazing to watch," Deputy Ian Purcell says. They are also dangerous -- lost in a world of audio and visual hallucinations. Purcell describes one man, oblivious to reality, standing on the windowsill in his cell cradling a blanket. He thought he was saving a baby from a burning building. "They see green lights, UFOs, police -- everything you can think of -- outside those windows. We house them here on top of all those duties, and are expected to keep them safe." With only two officers and up to 90 people, "it's pretty challenging," he says.

"None of the people who work here decide who comes here," Rohrscheib adds, "yet when it's overcrowded, people ask us why. Our answer is simple: We need more space."

Making Do

We're in the "annex" -- the old part of the Public Safety Building used for incarceration before the current jail existed. It contains old-school, iron-barred cells, some of which are triple-bunked. Groups of inmates being transported to court are temporarily stuffed into holding cells designed for one. An extension cord runs across a hallway, duct-taped to the floor, providing a makeshift outlet for a makeshift workspace. An isolated murderer, awaiting his sentencing, paces slowly back and forth in his cell. Noting the obvious impossibility of monitoring this sprawling section with only two deputies, Purcell explains the crux of the issue: Jail staff are spread especially thin because the jail is not functioning according to the "direct supervision" model it was designed for.

A deputy, inspecting one cell for contraband, presents fresh evidence of the mischief inmates will get into when inadequately supervised: two jars of "pruno," aka hooch -- crude alcohol made from fruit, jelly or sugar that is left to ferment with water and yeast from crackers or bread. "This is a small find," the deputy says, opening one jar for a whiff. "Sometimes you'll find a whole bag full of it."

With direct supervision, the inmates remain out of their cells during the day. They can use the phones, take showers, exercise and socialize with the corrections deputies in their midst. The deputies learn the inmates' voices and behaviors, build relationships and are on hand to resolve issues as they arise -- diffusing tension with humor and reason. But now, because of crowding, inmates might get out of their cells for 90 minutes a day, Purcell says.

"The bottom line is that these inmates have nothing to do and very little time out of their cells to try to accomplish anything. So when they're inside their cells, all they do -- not all of them, but a lot of them -- is cause problems," he says. "They're full of energy and have no way to express it. A lot of them have some kind of ADD, and don't do well sitting in a cell all day. They need an outlet, and we don't give it to them." Asked about what types of problems arise from the situation, Tyler says, "Assaults. Two inmates are locked into a small cell for long periods of time. Based on our working conditions and our workload at the courts, we've had to lock them down for two days straight. If it's in conjunction with a holiday, it could be three days."

The tension gets so high, Tyler says, that something as petty as a case of bad gas can cause a fight. "Words are exchanged, but there's no way to diffuse because they're in each other's space. An assault occurs. We have to go in there purely because of the amount of time they've been locked down." In the dormitory units, where sometimes 16 prisoners are held awaiting transport in a room built for 10 and the extras sleep on the floor, "it could be two or three on one" over a stolen candy bar, he says. What now?

The Geiger facility, which sits on 15 acres of prime real estate on the east side of the airport, now holds more than 40 percent of the county's jail population. The county leases the land from the airport, but not for much longer: In 2013, the airport is taking the property back, making a bad situation much worse.

"With Geiger going away, you will need a new jail," says Bennett, the consultant. "That's a given."

The goal of the sheriff's Detention Services Project has been to adopt a "systems-wide" approach to ensure that any new jail is utilized as efficiently as possible by the county's criminal justice system. "We've traveled the countryside trying to get a better understanding of the issues we currently have, as well as what the possible solutions are to this," said County Commissioner Mark Richard at a press conference in December. "We cannot wait a moment longer to have this community dialogue about what those solutions might be."

Earlier this month, a symposium of county leaders gathered at the Champions Room in the Spokane Arena to hear the results of Bennett's study. Consultants, architects, county commissioners, local police, deputies, judges, court administrators, prosecutors, public defenders all gathered for a day-long journey through mountains of data.

Bennett started his presentation with a counterintuitive revelation: There is no correlation between incarceration rates and crime rates. "If you build it, they will come," he says, noting that criminal justice systems everywhere tend to fill up whatever jail space they have available. Jail populations are influenced by many factors: the number of police on patrol, the availability of treatment and community crises centers, pre-trial release rates and failure rates, early case resolution and decision making, and available alternatives. The solution to an overcrowded jail, he says, is to have "a continuum of alternatives" in which offenders may be moved up and down as needed.

Bennett, a tall, slender man with sharp features and a great shock of frizzy, dark hair, had no fewer than 160 PowerPoint slides. He showed graphs and pie charts analyzing the makeup of the county jail's population by every conceivable category, including how they come to jail, how long they stay and for what reasons.

The data collecting and analysis Bennett did had never been done before in Spokane County, and one of his recommendations is to institutionalize the process so that this information can be periodically reviewed. Driving home the idea that the larger justice system directly impacts the jail population, Bennett projected the number of jail beds needed in 2035. If the average length of stay is 18 days, then the county will need 1,752 beds. If it's 22 days, then 2,135.

Where should a new jail be located? That's still being worked out. Some possibilities: the county campus next to the existing jail, the Medical Lake interchange site, the Spokane Industrial Park and the Spokane Raceway Park. Recommendations will be made to the County Commission on April 8. The public will be asked to approve a bond measure in November. As of right now, there is no price tag associated with the project.

Sitting Courtside

"One of the signs of an inefficient criminal justice system is when, at the end of the case, the defendant's sentence is credit for time served," says Judge Rick White, presiding judge of the District Court. "Because what has driven the number of days for which he/she gets credit for time served is oftentimes the system's inability to get the defendant into court with lawyers that are prepared to address the case." According to Bennett, this is happening a lot. Only 7 percent of cases are going to trial, with defendants instead pleading out and getting credit for time served. White says there is often little or no relation between credit for time served and the nature of the crime.

"Could you imagine, as a parent dealing with a child who has done something wrong, saying, 'Well, you stayed in last night, or you didn't go out with your friends for the past two weekends. That's enough for me.' How do you truly change behavior unless the defendant can see the connection between his behavior and the sentence?"

White also sees significance in the statistic that it takes, on average, 4.7 appearances to dispose of a case in the District Court, and an even higher number in the Superior Court. Every court hearing is an opportunity for the defendant to fail to appear, which drives up the number of warrants issued and, subsequently, arrests. "So, if jail population is driven by warrants," White says, "it's common sense that you'll have fewer opportunities to fail to appear if you have fewer hearings." When the judge gets tired of failures to appear, he posts bail so high that the offender can't get out and therefore must be held in jail. "So, not so subtle in [Bennett's] recommendations is for the courts to try to reduce the number of court appearances."

Many court appearances are a waste of time, according to White, because the defendant has not yet seen his public defense lawyer. "Here's the irony of it all," White continues. "The case, in my world, is often one of driving while license suspended. It's not a burglary or robbery or rape or murder -- it's something pretty minor. Yet it's taken six months and 4.7 encounters with the court system to bring it to resolution. "I came from that [symposium] clicking my heels," White says. "This is exactly what I wanted people to hear."

County Prosecutor Steve Tucker introduced himself at the symposium by saying he'd like to see a jail that's "not overcrowded, but appropriately full." Asked why a quarter of the county's felonies don't get filed within 72 hours, he explained it as a matter of getting the charge right: the difference between a fourth-degree assault and a first, he says, has as much to do with the severity of the injury as the intent. "If we rush in there and file a charge of second-degree assault, then it turns out to be a first or a third... If we up the charge, we're called vindictive prosecutors, and if we lower it we're called weak. If we dismiss it, then that's a really bad stat. ... That's why we like to wait until the police are ready to bring us a full enough report that we feel we've got the right charge to start with -- instead of just running to file one in order to keep them." Tucker says the police have their own risk assessment program, and if they believe the felon needs to be held, they will rush the report and it will get filed.

Tucker says that some explanations of Bennett's findings need to be developed. Otherwise, he says he's on board with the recommendations of consolidation and an increased role of drug and mental health courts and pre-trial services.

"A lot of the problems that you see coming through the jail are essentially social problems that are not ideally solved with criminal justice templates," says Public Defender John Rodgers. According to Bennett, there are eight times as many people with mental health issues in prisons, nationally, than there are in mental health institutions. "The United States puts more people in jail than any country, now or in history -- not only in absolute numbers, but per capita," Rogers says. "We lock 'em up." There is no one particular thing that drives jail population other than the decision to put people there, he says.

Back On The Block

Touring maximum security on level 6 of the county jail, Purcell stops to chat with a young inmate isolated for fighting.

"You can't let 'em punk you down," the inmate says, explaining that someone becomes marked for further harassment or victimization if they don't show their mettle the first time. He gets out next month and wants to remain alone to avoid another fight.

Now 22, he says he was introduced to meth when he was 15 by a 24-year-old dealer. The inmate got busted selling to an undercover officer and has been in jail since last summer.

Purcell asks him about living conditions in jail.

"I was in a cell with this person who killed his parents. It made me kinda nervous and stuff. You know what I'm sayin'? Watchin' me sleep and crazy stuff like that."

"Bryan Kim? You were his celly?" Purcell asks. "How was that?" (Kim, a student at Mt. Spokane High School, was sentenced on Feb. 21 to life without parole for the murder of his parents.)

"Yeah, Kim. He was an all right guy, you know. But he was kinda weird. He'd stay up all late at night, just walking around and watching me sleep and stuff. I couldn't take it. I thought he was going to try to kill me in my sleep. I mean, if someone kills his own parents, there's something wrong with him."

The inmate says that he's now had a lot of time to think, and his mind is clear. "Reality has just hit me, you know?"

"If you hadn't gotten arrested, you'd either be dead or out there still doing meth," Purcell says.

"You know, I think you're right. I think the Lord brought me here for a reason," the inmate says, open-faced and sincere, avowing a new path of following the Bible.

Regional Lockup Too Costly

The concept of a regional jail -- one that would accept special needs prisoners from surrounding counties -- appears to have faded in Eastern Washington.

Uncertain funding, low inmate populations and long road trips shuttling inmates to a central facility make the concept appear expensive and unwieldy to local jailers.

"I'd be hiring an entire staff just to drive people back and forth," Lincoln County Sheriff Wade Magers says.

"I haven't heard a lot of traction with it over here," Spokane County Undersheriff Jeff Tower adds. "King County has different satellite jails, and it's easy for them to partner up with Pierce and King or King and Snohomish counties. The size of Eastern Washington counties makes transport more difficult."

So difficult that Tower says he hasn't even heard the regional concept mentioned in his conversations with Spokane County's jail expansion team. Regional jails were a hot topic several years ago, explored in depth by Bruce Kuennen, a researcher with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

In November 2005, Kuennen released a 55-page report pitching regional jails to take in prisoners who are mentally ill, chemically dependent, chronically ill or convalescing. The idea is that a regional jail could take prisoners with expensive needs and offer economies in programs to help those populations and reduce local repeat offenders. Regional jails have been built in Kent and Wenatchee with those goals in mind. Local sheriff and jail officials agree with the concept, but say short sentences in county jails and the prospect of transporting prisoners back and forth for court dates put a damper on their enthusiasm. And then there is money. "Obviously in rural counties we don't have a need for a large jail," says Fred Johnson, chief of corrections for Pend Oreille County. "But let's say if Stevens County and Pend Oreille County built a regional jail it would attract prisoners from Spokane County, it would house federal prisoners and from Immigration. But it all comes back to that bottleneck to get the funding to build a jail and sustain it until it becomes profitable."

"I'm not saying there isn't a need for something like that but the trouble is how is it all going to come together?" asks Stevens County Chief Corrections Officer Loren Hartman.

In fact, Magers is thinking of turning the concept around. The jail in Davenport can house up to 25 prisoners and is recently "at 10, 9, 8," he says. "Something I've considered is if Spokane County has someone who is post-sentencing and doesn't need special counseling, we could take five or six at $60 a day. That would work for us, to take a few prisoners from a bigger entity."

The regional jails were also intended to provide cells for federal prisoners. This is an issue in Spokane. Because of overcrowding at the county jail, the U.S. Marshal's Service is housing prisoners as far away as Benton County, near the Tri-Cities. -- Kevin Taylor

Packed Tight -- Again

The Kootenai County Jail is so overcrowded that it has to ship inmates to other states, including Washington and Montana -- a scenario that costs the county a minimum of $50 per day per inmate plus transportation. The space crunch comes after a 2002 expansion increased the jail from 128 to 325 beds. That $12 million project was funded by a half-cent sales tax approved by voters.

Now, county officials are hoping to put a measure on the November ballot to fund a 307-bed expansion, which they believe should be sufficient until at least 2020.

"We're working on getting it right now," the jail commander, sheriff's Capt. Travis Chaney, says of the ballot measure.

So far, officials have not said how much the expansion would cost. In 2006, voters rejected a $50 million request for additional jail space. This request could be even more. The county is working with KMB Architects of Olympia to come up with a design.

"But we still have no designs and without those, we can't come up with a cost," says County Commission Chairman Elmer "Rick" Currie. Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, an opponent to at least part of the expansion plans, says a figure in the $75 million range has been floated. In fiscal year 2008, Kootenai County budgeted $8.2 million to run the jail, but officials say if they had more beds, they wouldn't need to ship inmates to other facilities, saving them some cash. Most days, they transport about 125 inmates to Spokane and Ferry counties in Washington, Shoshone County in Idaho and Sanders County in Montana.

On average, of the 415 inmates in custody, about 50 are waiting to be taken to state correctional facilities. Another 40 are work-release inmates who spend off hours in the jail.

Chaney says the jail became overcrowded almost immediately after the 2002 expansion was finished. It wasn't built large enough in the first place, in light of the explosive growth across the region, he says. A larger expansion was ultimately scaled down because of costs.

The county's population is hovering around 140,000 people and is expected to close in on 200,000 by 2020. The spike in the jail population took sheriff's officials by surprise -- and besides the booming growth, they aren't exactly sure what's driving it.

"We could never put our finger on it," Chaney says. In addition to all the stress that comes with an overcrowded jail, deputies now face a different kind of inmate, Chaney says. In the past, the majority were nonviolent offenders. Now, there are regularly 20 to 30 inmates with street gangs, several of which are at war.

"In the past, we would see an occasional gang associate, but nothing like we are seeing now," Chaney says. "Because of that, we have to keep them separate" and crowding makes that difficult to do. Inmates also tend to have more severe medical conditions, putting further strain on the jail's medical staff.

The county is also considering opening a secure work center at the new solid waste transfer station north of Post Falls, where up to 200 inmates would sort through the waste stream to keep recyclables from entering the county's quickly filling landfill. But that's the part that bothers Larkin. He questions how the county would dispose of the sewage generated by the inmates as well as those hired to watch them.

"That's right over the (Rathdrum) aquifer," he says, "and the sheriff wants to hang a couple of buckets out there."

Larkin says that while he agrees the county needs more jail beds, building a work center at the transfer station, which is not near a sewer connection, would require an on-site wastewater treatment facility to serve it. That would double the cost of that facility.

Chaney stresses that the voters need to do something now, while they have a choice, or the county will be forced to spend even more to build something in the future. Projections show inmate populations only increasing, up to 800 inmates by 2020. This next round of building would increase the capacity of other areas of the jail, such as laundry and kitchen. "We would have the core infrastructure," Chaney says, "and then we can grow with small bites to fit our needs." -- Dave Turner

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