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State Wants To Send Female Inmates To Wapato Jail March 22, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

The long-shuttered Wapato jail may finally open to house female prison inmates, whose numbers are expected to surge in the coming years, under a proposal being discussed between the state Department of Corrections and Multnomah County.

Corrections Department Director Max Williams made the proposal at a recent meeting with County Commission Chairman Ted Wheeler.

Under the plan, the state would pay the county about $4 million during the next two years to take over responsibility for up to 200 female inmates from the Portland area who are within a year of being released.

A promise to open Wapato was a key part of Wheeler’s successful 2006 election campaign. Peter Ozanne, the county’s deputy chief operating officer for public safety, said county officials are "very interested" in Williams’ proposal.

The use of part of the 525-bed Wapato jail would provide a short-term solution to a looming problem for the state prison system. The only women’s prison in Oregon is Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

Coffee Creek has 1,240 beds and housed 1,096 female inmates as of last week, according to the state. The DOC forecasts that 345 female inmates will enter the prison system during the 2009-11 budget cycle, 281 of them sentenced under the terms of Measure 57.

Measure 57, which Oregon voters passed in November, lengthened sentences for repeat drug and property crimes and required drug and alcohol treatment for offenders.

Crimes covered by Measure 57 include dealing methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine, aggravated theft from the elderly, property crimes such as burglary and auto theft, and identify theft. Almost half of those convicted of ID theft are women.

The use of Wapato jail to house state female inmates would relieve a nagging, five-year headache for Multnomah County. The empty jail in the St. Johns area of North Portland stands as a tower of embarrassment to county government. It was completed in 2004 at a cost of $58 million, but it has never housed a single inmate because the county doesn’t have the operating money.

Meanwhile, the county will spend $379,000 in the next fiscal year to maintain the jail.

Williams said Coffee Creek is expected to reach capacity in July 2010. He said one alternative would be to convert an industrial work area for inmates into dormitory-style housing at a cost of about $2 million.

Instead, Williams suggested to Wheeler that overflow female inmates who are nearing their release dates be sent to Wapato, which the county would run. The proposed $4 million state payment would include the cost of operating part of the jail through June 2011.

One likely complication in reaching a state-county agreement on Wapato is a thick set of restrictions set out in a conditional-use permit granted by the city of Portland before construction began. Williams said this could affect such issues as outdoor recreation areas, outside work crews and inmates’ release into the community.

Williams disclosed his conversation with Wheeler after state officials were asked about Senate Bill 684, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene. The measure would compel Multnomah County to sell Wapato to the Corrections Department. The bill appropriates $1 to buy the jail but also sets out a detailed process to agree on a fair price.

Williams said that his department had nothing to do with the bill and that he has not discussed a possible jail purchase with lawmakers. "I would not seek legislation to force them to sell something for $1," he said.

Prozanski called the bill "basically a placeholder" as state officials consider options for Oregon’s growing prison population.

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