Inside Washington’s 12 prisons, space is maxed out, and officials expect the overcrowding to worsen. To ease the problem, they have signed a contract to house up to 1,000 inmates at a Michigan prison.

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Inside Washington’s 12 prisons, space is maxed out with every bed occupied, and officials expect the overcrowding to worsen.

To ease the problem, Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner signed a contract last month with The Geo Group, a South Florida-based private corporation that runs prisons around the world. Geo Group plans to house up to 1,000 male Washington inmates at its prison in Baldwin, Mich.

Under the contract, Geo Group will be paid $60 per day per inmate. The company will cover the cost of transporting inmates to Michigan, Warner said.

Warehousing inmates in privately run prisons is nothing new for the DOC. In the mid- to late 2000s, overcrowding forced the prison system to ship inmates out of state. The practice drew complaints from inmates and their loved ones, who said it broke apart families.

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Warner defends the decision to ship inmates out of state by saying, “What we don’t want to do is have unsafe conditions in our prisons and go down the path of crime.”

Added Warner: “We’ve been raising concerns about capacity over the last three or four years.”

As of Tuesday, there were 16,752 men and women in Washington state prisons.

Warner believes the DOC can operate at its current capacity for 12 to 18 months before having to send offenders to the Michigan. He said DOC forecasters expect to need an additional 1,000 inmate beds by 2025.

The state Department of Corrections has signed a contract with a private corrections firm to house up to 1,000 inmates at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Mich.
The state Department of Corrections has signed a contract with a private corrections firm to house up to 1,000 inmates at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Mich. Source: ESRI

Dan Pacholke, DOC’s deputy secretary, said the last time prison officials selected inmates to be sent out of state, they looked for offenders who did not have strong family ties and didn’t have a regular stream of visitors.

“You start with volunteers,” Pacholke said. “You try not to not disrupt people with strong family support.”

But state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, who has long worked closely with DOC on overcrowding issues, said in the past Washington state inmates were selected for out-of-state prison placement based on their “model behavior,” not whether their families would be impacted.

“These contractors only want the people who are going to perform well. They take the cream of the crop,” said Darneille, adding that in her view sending inmates out of state is “absolutely bad policy.”

“It just breaks morale to solve a short-term problem,” she added.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) has also long opposed sending inmates out of state, said spokesman Doug Honig.

“It separates people from their families, which is very unhelpful for rehabilitating people. It is not good in the long run for public safety since most people are going to get out of prison,” Honig said.

The ACLU of Washington is especially concerned that DOC has signed a contract with a company with no extensive local ties. The Geo Group runs the Northwest Detention Center, an Immigration & Customs Enforcement facility in Tacoma that houses detainees.

“The group they’re contracting with is a private, for-profit prison company. Their incentive is to make money, which could include cutting corners on services,” Honig said. “It’s hard for the citizenry in Washington to hold them accountable.”

We’ve been raising concerns about capacity over the last three or four years.”

The Geo Group made headlines last month after the ACLU of Southern California and other human-rights organizations wrote to federal officials expressing concern about the medical care provided at the company’s Adelanto Detention Facility after two inmates died in a three-year span.

According to The Huffington Post, The Geo Group has been faced with hundreds of lawsuits. The online news publication said one former Geo Group employee claimed First Amendment violations to inmates, improper training for staff, and abuse to both inmates and employees.

Geo Group declined to comment directly for this story, instead emailing a statement Tuesday saying that it operates its prisons “pursuant to strict contractual requirements and industry-leading standards including those set by the American Correctional Association, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary.”

Warner, the DOC secretary, defended the decision to contract with The Geo Group, saying they carefully reviewed prison-service providers. He said they have a very specific contract with Geo Group mandating that inmates have access to work, treatment and educational opportunities.

“Our expectation is we have very specific conditions the provider needs to meet. If they fail to meet the contract expectations we will terminate the contract,” Warner said.

For several years DOC has been pushing state lawmakers to allocate funds to build another prison. DOC is now asking lawmakers to transform the former Maple Lane School, once a Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facility near Centralia, into the state’s newest 700-bed prison.

If the state Legislature agrees to fund the facility, Warner estimates 2020 will be the earliest the new facility could open.

Warner said it would be too costly for the state to add or renovate current prisons. He said reopening McNeil Island Corrections Center, which closed in 2011, would cost at least $50 million.

Darniille, the state senator, said the Legislature still has time in the next year or two to pass sentencing reforms to help alleviate prison overcrowding enough to avoid sending offenders out of state.

“If we’re passing policy on one side that says we’re going to hit you harder and longer, we’re going to definitely need to have more beds,” she said. “But if we’re implementing other kinds of strategies we can possibly reduce the number of people being put in the position of needing these longer sentences.”

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