Thurston County plans estimated $19 million jail expansion

By Sara Gentzler

The Olympian

Thurston County commissioners unanimously agreed Wednesday to move forward with a plan, estimated to cost at least $19 million, to expand the county jail in Tumwater. The decision comes after years of discussion and ongoing crowding at the facility.

“Doing nothing is not an option, and anything that we do that delays this project is virtually doing nothing, in my opinion,” Commissioner John Hutchings, who chairs the board, said as he opened the stakeholder meeting Wednesday. “And I’m tired of doing nothing.”

Commissioners approved proceeding with the design of a 40-bed addition, plus a shell for future expansion. Before a bidding process for construction gets started, the commissioners will decide whether to include the shell.

With the shell, the project is estimated to cost about $25 million. Excluding the shell could cut costs to an estimated $19 million.

Whether commissioners decide to approve the shell could depend on the outcome of the April election, where voters will decide whether to raise property taxes to build a new county courthouse and office complex. The same funding source that would be used for the jail, a real estate excise tax, could be needed to fund a courthouse “plan B,” Commissioner Tye Menser stressed Wednesday.

The current jail expansion plan is drastically scaled down from past plans.

The county originally intended for the new jail to be built in phases, Chief Deputy of Corrections Todd Thoma said Wednesday. But the recession hit, and a “Phase II” that would’ve added 256 beds never happened.

That phase would have included two 68-bed dormitories for low- and medium-custody inmates and a 120-bed maximum-custody unit.

When it was revisited, it was “obvious” to officials that the dorms were no longer needed, Thoma said in a phone interview Thursday. The plan changed to include just the 120 maximum-custody beds.

In the most current estimates, that 120-bed plan would cost almost $40 million.

Stakeholders considered other options, including adding a temporary modular unit, reopening parts of the old jail at the county courthouse, and converting all or part of the Family Justice Center to house adults rather than juveniles.

In its discussions, the board determined those options weren’t attractive.

“Refurbishing space in the old jail would not save any money, because the operational expenses of having duplicate corrections staffing and programming in two locations would swallow up any savings in construction costs,” Commissioner Menser wrote in a Facebook post about the decision Thursday.

Now, officials hope the board-approved, 40-bed “flex unit,” with cells that can be used in different ways as needs change, will address crowding issues that have persisted even with a decreasing inmate population.

Operations Captain George Eaton said the overall jail population two years ago was 485 inmates. On Wednesday, the population was 358. Corrections officials credit the court for expediting cases and diverting low-risk offenders.

But the higher-level offenders who can’t live in the open dormitories are where the jail has felt the pinch, as The Olympian has previously reported.

Limitations on how beds and cells can be used is causing an overflow of maximum-custody and special-needs inmates, officials say. Sometimes, low- and medium-custody inmates are sent to contract housing in Lewis and Yakima Counties as a result.

Maximum-custody and special-needs male inmates are often housed in temporary holding cells without permanent beds. Maximum-custody and special-needs women are housed in a transfer area that’s not meant for long-term stays.

Because of those conditions, several officials have said they fear a lawsuit.

“I’ll make it really clear: I don’t want the county or the Sheriff to get sued by Disability Rights Washington because we’re not properly taking care of the men and women who are in our facility for mental health reasons or drug addiction reasons,” Sheriff John Snaza said Wednesday.

Neither Commissioner Menser nor Commissioner Gary Edwards went into the meeting in support of the 40-bed plan. But, ultimately, all three commissioners voted in its favor. Hutchings said after the vote that, while he is relieved, he is still concerned about the financial piece.

“There was no perfect solution to this, but I am satisfied we landed in the right place, balancing financial, operational, criminal justice policy, and human rights considerations,” Menser wrote in his Facebook post.

Chief Thoma told The Olympian Thursday that he knows there’s still “a lot of work to do” to design the project and address other issues. But for now, he said he feels optimistic that the 40 beds will meet the needs of the inmates and Corrections staff.

“It was not an easy decision by the board, I understand that,” Thoma said. “I don’t think it was made without a lot of discussion and analysis on their part. I thought they were very supportive and thoughtful in their efforts.”