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UPDATED: Budget cuts to shutter McNeil Island prison next year, DOC announces

Post by Stacey Mulick / The News Tribune on Nov. 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
November 19, 2010 2:32 pm

The state Department of Corrections will be closing McNeil Island Corrections Center in Pierce County next year as a result of budget cuts, the agency announced this morning.

The historic island prison will close for good April 1 and its 515 offenders shipped to other prisons in the state, according to a press release issued this morning.

The prison employs 245 staff members and the corrections department will work to find them jobs elsewhere in the prison system, the agency said.

The McNeil Island prison had been the focus of closure talks earlier this year. But instead of shuttering the facility, the state Legislature decided to cut the prison’s population by 80 percent, going from 1,292 prisoners to 256 by March.

Further cuts are needed because of declining tax revenue, the agency announced. The agency has to reduce its budget by nearly $53 million.

Full closure of the Pierce County prison is expected to save the Department of Corrections $6.3 million a year.

“This will save the most money without compromising the safety of our staff, the offenders and the public,” Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said in the press release. “The budget crisis is causing us to make some of the most painful decisions in our agency’s history.”

Sen. Mike Carrell (R-Lakewood) said the closure could mean fewer offenders are released into Pierce County. On the downside, however, the local economy could be impacted.

“The economic impact of the McNeil Island prison closure will mean reduced income for local businesses that provide services and supplies related to prison operations, employees and visitors,” Carrell wrote in a statement. “This will result in another blow to our local economy still deep in the pain of the recession.”

The costs to operate the ferries, barges and fire boats to McNeil Island will shift from the corrections department to the state Department of Social and Health Services, which runs the Special Commitment Center for sexually violent predators on the island.

Right now, the two agencies share those costs. Thomas Shapley, spokesman for DSHS, said the new burdens will cost the agency about $5.4 million more in the 2011-13 budget year.

“We have a lot to work out,” he said. “It will have an impact.”

Earlier this fall, the corrections department announced that it would close Larch Corrections Center near Vancouver.

They’ve changed courses after realizing that the Larch closure would save only $2 million a year. The department announced today that Larch Corrections Center will go back to full capacity and house 480. Right now, it has 240 offenders.

McNeil Island prison first opened in 1875. It was run as a federal penitentiary until it closed in 1976. The state signed a lease with the federal government in 1981 and reopened McNeil Island as a state prison for maximum security prisoners. The state was deeded the island in 1984.

McNeil Island will be the third prison to be closed in the state. DOC closed Ahtanum View Corrections Center in Yakima and Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women near Spokane earlier this year. Both were minimum-security facilities.

The state will have 12 remaining prisons with enough beds to house 16,000 offenders.

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