Prisoner population drop leads to Washington’s first prison closure since 2011

Jun 27, 2023, 12:46 PM

Prison population...

The prison populations are declining in Washington state. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The prisoner population in Washington has declined in recent years. The trend is expected to accelerate over the next decade.

The inmate population for males aged 18-39 peaked in June 2018 at 18,122. In June of last year, it stood at 12,972. It has been decreasing steadily for the past five years, according to the state’s Office of Financial Management.

Also, 30% of available beds are not in use at this time, the Washington Department of Corrections reports.

“We already have one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the nation,” said Cheryl Strange, DOC Secretary.

While on the surface, that might sound like good news, there are a myriad of reasons and outcomes.

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In the 2021 ruling in State of Washington v. Blake, the Washington Supreme Court decided that simple possession of a controlled substance is no longer a felony. During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers revised the law and made drug possession a gross misdemeanor. All incarcerated individuals in DOC custody have been convicted of felonies, so this change in the law will not translate to an additional need for beds.

Clark County prison to close

“DOC has worked diligently to lower recidivism rates, create better neighbors and ensure that incarcerated individuals don’t return to us once they get out,” Strange explained. “Of course, our continued success means we can no longer afford to operate all of the prisons we currently have.”

The agency will close Larch Corrections Center (LCC) in Clark County this fall. The minimum-security facility has a capacity of 240 beds. The 115 staff members will be offered jobs at other DOC facilities.

Several units at the Monroe Correctional Center closed in 2021, but the state has not shuttered a prison since it closed the McNeil Island Corrections Center in 2011. The facility could reopen in the future if needed.

Solitary confinement ’causes long-lasting harm’

Separately from the closure, the agency said it is developing a comprehensive plan to reduce the use of solitary confinement, without compromising staff safety.

“The research is clear on solitary confinement,” Strange said. “It causes long-lasting harm. While it can be an effective way to deter violence, spending prolonged periods of time in isolation has devastating effects on an individual’s mental and physical health long after they leave our facilities.”

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As prisons transition to what they call a more humane corrections system, the services prisoners need access to include improved health care services, mental health support, opportunities for education, and other programming more readily available at minimum-security living units attached to major facilities.

The DOC said it will continue to evaluate trends and the direct impacts on the department’s capacity and needs as they continue to make decisions as a result of declining admissions to prisons.

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Prisoner population drop leads to Washington’s first prison closure since 2011