Grays Harbor has grown out of its jail, county officials say.
Commissioners set aside $1 million as “seed money” that could help fund studies or purchase land. They have been in talks with officials from Mason County about a potential regional facility. And county officials have toured newer facilities to see what tens of millions of dollars can buy.
The Grays Harbor Correctional Facility, which is run by the county Sheriff’s Office, is too small, inefficient and it’s just wearing out, officials say.
“Our existing jail is falling apart,” said Mark Cox, the county’s director of community development.
“It’s not safe for the inmates; it’s not safe for the officers,” Undersheriff Brad Johannson said. “There’s times when we’ll have four corrections officers on duty with 165 people (incarcerated).”
“The other issue we’re having is approximately 4,200 outstanding misdemeanor warrants. … And those are just county warrants,” he added. “You have warrants from out of the area and you can’t book those either because you don’t have enough room. Basically, the only ones you can book are the mandatory, misdemeanor arrests, which are like a domestic violence assault or a second DUI offense, and then all the violent felonies.”
The problems at the county jail aren’t unique. Aberdeen jail commander Lt. Kevin Darst said they have similar overcrowding, maintenance and outstanding warrant issues.
“We’re somewhere around 3,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants,” he said.
Grays Harbor and Mason counties are jointly funding three studies to examine needs for detention centers, one on a joint facility and others on each county running their own. Those reports are expected to be complete by the middle of next year.
“(The study is) going to figure out what our capacity needs are, what our future needs are, what the process is going to be, what location we can do this in,” Cox said. “Does it make more sense to work with Mason County and do a regional? So what we signed up for was not only a regional study but two individual studies.”
KMB Architects interviewed officials across invested departments in Grays Harbor County last month to compile the studies.
Meanwhile, county officials are stressing the need for a new jail.
The about-33,000-square-foot Grays Harbor Correctional Facility was modified in 1987 to house 82 people, Johannson said. “It has since had modifications made to it to provide additional bed space for a total of 176 beds,” he said
“Last year, our average daily population was actually 165 inmates,” he added. “… We’re overloaded to say the least.”
Overcrowding difficulties also arise from the diverse population. The jail must house both male and female inmates in higher-risk and lower-risk populations. Also there are considerations for inmate health status, including mental health, of certain offenders that could require additional isolation.
Sex offender and gang affiliation also contribute to population concerns requiring added separation.
Currently, the priority for the jail is holding people guilty of committing a felony. People convicted of a misdemeanor — for example driving while under the influence — could see delayed incarceration.
“We currently don’t have space to hold misdemeanants,” Grays Harbor Commissioner Vickie Raines said. “So if they get a DUI and need to do two days in jail, they have to schedule it months in advance, and we may not have the room to be able to do that.”
“We just did an elevator upgrade in the jail — a $250,000 project,” Cox said. “We just spent another $100,000 to fix a sewer issue in the jail. It’s kind of nickle-and-diming us to death.”
A group of county officials recently toured three jails, including one for children in Seattle and a Nisqually tribal facility.
Cox took part in those tours. He hopes the project’s costs can be limited by avoiding unnecessary features.
“We’re looking at the bare-bones (facility), very functional, not a lot of fluff,” he said. He liked what the Nisqually Tribe had done with its federal facility.
“It’s not a bad design. I think they did it the right way,” he said.
Cox expects Grays Harbor County could need up to a 400-bed facility. If it is in conjunction with Mason County, he thinks a facility with up to 600 beds would be more appropriate.
“We will not know the actual number of beds needed until the study is done,” he said
Raines expects at minimum a 250-bed jail, but would rather have some “breathing room.”
“We don’t want to be like Lewis County, where they built a jail and it was full the day they opened it,” she said.
But funding remains to be determined.
“The big question is where is the money going to come from?” Cox asked.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” he said. “The last time we talked about this in Grays Harbor County, it was going to be a $50 million facility in Montesano.”
Regarding funding, Commissioner Raines said this via email: “KMB will provide financing alternatives as well. We have an executive team (treasurer, budget director, sheriff, facilities/comm dev. director and myself) that meet specifically on financing and ensuring we can afford what we build.
“We talked about tax credits, public/private/partnerships and other alternatives, including bonding, but no decisions have been made of course, those conversations have yet to include all commissioners, until a clearer path forward is known.”
Location determination for a new jail also would stem from whether a regional or Grays Harbor-only jail is considered the best option. A regional jail likely would be built near the Grays Harbor-Mason county line. Any facility would require connection to a sewer system in addition to power and water lines. The studies will help narrow options for location.
And like any large public project, expect the public to become involved.
“We’ll hold some public meetings to get public input to see what we’re interested in supporting,” Johannson said.
But no meetings have been set as of yet.