Benton County trying to find ways to ease jail overcrowding

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldMay 3, 2014 

— Some inmates walked laps around the large pod on the second floor of the Benton County jail.

Others gathered at a common TV.

Still others sat on their beds -- some in temporary ones on the floor.

Shower time was over, and on that morning last week, the pod hummed with voices and activity.

It was full -- crowded, actually.

That's becoming the new normal at the jail, which lately has seen its inmate numbers climb.

Jail officials don't expect the trend to ease anytime soon with the busy summer months approaching. And a public safety sales tax on the ballot this summer -- if successful -- will put more officers on the streets countywide.

County officials in recent weeks have been discussing the best way to address current crowding, including potentially adding more jail staff.

Sheriff Steve Keane said it's a pressing matter. "We need to look at all of our options," he told the Herald. "Something has to be done."

'A domino effect'

The jail in Kennewick has about 740 beds.

But two pods, or housing areas, were closed when the county dealt with an expected shortfall in its 2013-14 biennial budget and the jail experienced a drop in inmates. The dip was partly because of a new state law meant to reduce the amount of money the state was spending to house offenders in county jails for community supervision violations.

A dozen Benton County jail positions were eliminated through attrition, including 10 corrections officer slots.

Undersheriff Jerry Hatcher said jail officials expected the number of inmates to eventually bounce back, and that's what is happening now.

While temporary increases in the jail population are common, the numbers haven't dipped back down in recent months, jail officials said.

Last week, the jail was holding about 660 inmates -- well above its capacity. The jail has 610 permanent beds in the currently opened pods, but officials factor out about 10 percent when calculating capacity because not all inmates can be housed together because of gender and issues ranging from gang disputes to mental health issues.

The jail is using temporary beds, called "boats," which sit on the floor, to help with the overload.

More than a dozen "boats" were being used in the second-floor pod -- which has 64 permanent beds. Initially, staffers added "boats" to the bunk areas on the lower level of the pod, but eventually had to move to the upper level as well, said jail Cmdr. Jon Law.

With more inmates in the pod, "shower time gets extended, meal time -- everything gets more drawn out and complicated," Law said.

"It just has this domino effect."

'We need to do something about it'

The "boats" are a temporary fix, but they're not a long-term solution to rising inmate numbers, jail officials said, noting overcrowded pods can create liability risks along with bogging down operations.

The sheriff's officials have proposed adding jail staff as one possible solution. Their idea is to bring on six clerical workers to handle some more administrative tasks, freeing up corrections officers so the jail can reopen one of the closed pods.

The clerical workers would cost about $450,000.

Sheriff's officials also are looking to see how other jails deal with the ebb and flow of inmate populations, Keane said.

County commissioners are expected to discuss the crowding issue at Tuesday's meeting in Prosser.

Commissioner Jerome Delvin said it makes sense to examine other jails' practices. It's also worth looking at whether the practice of housing inmates by contract for agencies such as the state Department of Corrections brings in enough revenue to make it worth it, he said.

He and Commissioner Shon Small said they're open to the possibility of adding more jail staff if it makes financial sense and is determined to be the best option.

Small said he sees the jail crowding as a priority. "We need to do something about it," he told the Herald. "... I either want to see how we can reduce the population or find a way to obtain enough personnel to take care of the population issue at the lowest monetary cost, with the lowest financial impact for all of us."

Commissioner Jim Beaver said he feels there could be ways to manage the inmate numbers without hiring more employees. He said he's concerned about rising jail costs and the effect on taxpayers, and he's heard the same from officials from local cities that share in jail costs.

A third-party review

While county officials grapple with the best way to address jail crowding, they're also taking steps to arrange a third-party review of the facility's staffing and operations.

Keane, who asked for the review, said the jail is a lean operation that's doing a good job with its resources.

But, "I think that (a review) is good for transparency," providing information and context on jail costs to the public and the cities that help foot the bill, he said.

Keane is working with the county administrator on a request for qualifications for an expert to do the review. The idea is that city officials will have the chance to give input when it comes to selecting the expert.

Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser -- which share in jail costs by footing the bill for housing misdemeanor inmates from their jurisdictions -- have seen their costs rise in recent years.

In 2013, the four cities paid $3.9 million combined for their misdemeanor inmates, up 9.6 percent over 2008, according to information from the county. During the same period, the county's costs for its inmates rose about 33 percent to $8.1 million, the information showed.

The jail has seen the cost of doing business go up, from having to pay more for food to rising employee-related expenses, sheriff's officials said. They noted that in many budget areas, their hands are tied, dictated by factors such as labor or vendor agreements.

Still, jail officials said their facility is an efficient operation compared to other like-sized facilities in the state. The Thurston County jail, for example, has less capacity but a budget that's about $1 million higher, according to information presented to commissioners.

This year's local jail budget is $16.3 million.

Keane took office in 2011, under his predecessor's budget. The first budget he crafted in office was the 2013-14 spending plan.

The proposed sales tax on the August ballot would add three pennies to a $10 purchase, with the county and its cities sharing the money raised for public safety needs.

Some of the county's share would pay for four more corrections officers. Hatcher noted that even if the current proposal to bring on the clerical workers and realign the work force to reopen one of the closed pods moves forward, more staff still would be needed to bring the jail to full capacity.

Late last week, some county and sheriff's officials met with city leaders to discuss the crowding and jail costs.

Keane said regular workshops are planned "so we're being transparent and making decisions together on issues we all face."

"I know the public expects the sheriff to have a facility where people can be held accountable, and for the sheriff to be conscious of taxpayer money," Keane said. "For me, the best way to accomplish that is to be as transparent as possible."

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service