The Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell seemed like a safe haven to some state prison workers who were displaced with recent prison closures and budget cuts.
But those same workers may be the ones to lose their jobs as the state Department of Corrections cuts staff at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
The penitentiary's Old Main facility is shifting from medium-security to minimum-security beds, which means the loss of about 140 jobs, said Dan Pacholke, the state's director of prisons.
About 50 to 60 of those state penitentiary workers will have the right to a position at Coyote Ridge based on their seniority, he said.
"It's the cost of being efficient," he said. But the impact to people is harsh, he said.
An analysis that found the state had an excess of medium custody beds and a shortage of minimum custody beds prompted the shift, said Chad Lewis, Department of Corrections acting director of communications.
About 1,000 minimum custody offenders were housed in medium custody beds, which requires more staff, he said. And minimum security does not require staffing an armed perimeter.
With minimum security, inmates generally have shorter sentences and demonstrate good behavior, Pacholke said. Medium security has inmates with longer sentences and some with problematic disciplinary records.
The security change at Old Main is expected to save about $10 million per year. It's part of the5 percent, or $80 million, that the department is being asked to cut through the current budget cycle, which ends June 30, 2013, Pacholke said. The department's two-year budget is about $1.6 billion.
Coyote Ridge, which houses about 2,550 inmates, is the state's largest prison and it hit full capacity this summer. In 2008, it added a 2,048-bed medium-security section to the 600-bed minimum-security facility.
As the first prison campus to meet national standards for its green and energy-saving practices, officials say the Connell prison is more cost efficient to operate.
Coyote Ridge's opening has been one of the smoothest Pacholke said he has seen. And it opened faster and more aggressively than past prisons. That's a compliment to the 700 people who work there.
But Jeff Uttecht, Coyote Ridge superintendent, said the constant transition of staff makes it hard to build a cohesive team. And the movement of inmates affects the prison's operation because inmates are hired to do work within the prison, such as laundry and kitchen duty.
Offenders also are most prone to act out within the first couple weeks of arrival, Pacholke said. That affects prison safety, which isn't something the department takes lightly.
After 31/2 years of budget cuts and the closure of three prisons, Pacholke said the department has a tight margin of vacant beds, between 150 to 175.
And of those who are incarcerated, 70 percent are considered violent offenders and another 15 percent have violent histories, he said. That and the increase in gang members, which now represent about 22 percent of those incarcerated, makes running the prisons more challenging.
With the staffing changes, the effect to the Connell prison would have been worse if the department hadn't instituted a hiring freeze, Pacholke said. And the department opened up a transfer window to affected employees at the state penitentiary, which allowed them to transfer all over the state and reduced the number who would end up at Coyote Ridge.
Some of the employees who may lose their jobs to former state penitentiary workers already have been moved two or three times because of seniority, Uttecht said.
Employees feel uncertain about the future with budget cuts and prison closures. Uttecht said it means many of Coyote Ridge's employees are living in trailer parks and fifth wheels or sharing apartments while their families remain on the west side of the state.
And some have resigned recently because they aren't sure whether their job is secure, he said.
About 30 probationary employees at Coyote Ridge have been given probation separation letters, which means they can be laid off with one-day notice, Uttecht said.
The change to minimum security will be completed Jan. 1, said Steve Sinclair, the state's deputy director of prisons.
Some of the Connell prison's workers will be the ones without a job. "Most certainly, Coyote Ridge is going to feel the worst of it," he said.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org