This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
State lawmakers should take a hard look at how much closing McNeil Island Corrections Center would actually save the state. South Sound legislators ought to also keep in mind what the closure could ultimately cost this community.
On Saturday, the state Senate set the stage for a showdown by passing a budget that calls for the McNeil prison’s closure in exchange for keeping a Vancouver prison open. (The House favors reducing the island’s 1,200-inmate population by half instead.)
Members of the Senate have been trying for years to get the state to study closing the McNeil prison, which is expensive to operate due to its remote location. People and supplies have to be ferried to and from the island, which has its own ferry service, fire department and wastewater treatment plant.
The Legislature finally commissioned that study last year – but the report doesn’t seem to have told senators what they wanted to hear.
Consultants told the state point-blank that closing McNeil wasn’t a real option. The study by Christopher Murray and Associates concluded that a number of factors prohibit closure, chief among them the presence of the Special Commitment Center that houses 300 violent sex offenders.
The commitment center isn’t a prison. Operated by the Department of Social and Health Services, the center houses offenders who have served their time behind bars but have been found by a court to pose a threat to society as compulsive career predators.
Operation of the center is heavily dependent on services provided by the island’s main tenant, the state Department of Corrections.
Prisoners help maintain vehicles, roads, power lines, buildings and grounds. They also serve as firefighters, ferry deckhands and steam plant assistants. Corrections officers provide armed security; DSHS personnel aren’t allowed to even carry firearms.
The cost of those services would be shifted to DSHS – and at a much higher rate than the Department of Corrections is paying inmates to perform them.
Christopher Murray and Associates estimated that it would take at least 110 state employees to do the work that prisoners now perform, at a cost of nearly $11 million a biennium. That figure doesn’t include the costs of creating a new security force.
The Special Commitment Center is already enormously pricey – the state spends about four times more to house a sexually violent offender than it does to imprison a convict. See those prices rise even higher, and it won’t be long before lawmakers begin eyeing relocation of the sex offender unit, too – possibly to another location in Pierce County that’s less secure.
If experience has taught Pierce County anything, it’s to be wary when the state goes hunting for places to site new facilities for ex-cons. The path of least resistance has led too often through our front door.