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Walla Walla County Assumed Management of its County Jail in 2015 and became A Leader in Criminal Justice Reform
On June 1, 2015, Walla Walla County Commissioners voted unanimously to create a new County Department of Corrections (“DOC”) to assume responsibility for operation of the County Jail from the County Sheriff. Walla Walla County Commissioners followed the example of other Counties that have assumed control of the Jail from the Sheriff under RCW 70.48.090 (4), such as: King County (1968); Yakima County (1993); Chelan County (2001); and Spokane County (2013). Walla Walla County Jail management was transferred from the Sheriff’s Department to a division of the newly-created Walla Walla DOC—which was immediately accountable directly to the County Commissioners.
The move was initiated by the Commissioners because of the deterioration of the County jail over several years, and the Sheriff’s funding of his own department and patrol over jail maintenance. The budget process allowed the Sheriff to spend the total amount budgeted to his department as he saw fit, with no required allocation of funds to the jail.
After the Commissioners created the DOC, they hired a Jail Commander who inherited a jail that was immediately down five officers, who left the jail to join the Sheriff’s Department. In addition, Jail employees previously lost to attrition had not been replaced by the Sheriff. The resulting staff shortage created safety issues for both remaining staff and inmates.
Walla Walla DOC Repairs the Jail and Reduces Liabilities
The Commissioners first assessed the extent of maintenance and other liability issues inside the Jail. For example, cell door locks were broken and the inmates could let themselves out. In 2015, an inmate filed a claim against the County (before creation of the DOC) arising from the broken locks. He had purchased food from the commissary and refused to share it with other inmates. A group of inmates broke out of their cells during the night shift when staffing was reduced. They broke into the inmate’s cell, beat him and took his food. Walla Walla settled that claim in 2015.
Another inmate died because of inadequate assessment upon booking and lack of proper medical care. She was a drug user and was booked into the jail with a septic infection. She was not evaluated or treated property while in the jail, and died of her infection.
The Commissioners and their direct report, the Jail Commander discovered maintenance deficiencies in all areas of the jail from the cells to the showers to the kitchen to the laundry and beyond. There were holes in the ceiling that allowed inmates to climb up into the ceiling and make weapons. Inmates were removing tiles in the shower areas and fashioning them into weapons. After taking control over the jail, the County rapidly played “catch up” with maintenance. They fixed the locks, painted the interior, fixed an inoperable dishwasher in the kitchen, and installed a $1.4 million HVAC system. When feasible, the Jail used supervised inmate “Trustees” to work on repair and maintenance of the building, in order to build job skills for re-entry and to earn other privileges.
Walla Walla Discovers the Benefits of a Linear Jail Design
Like the Whatcom County Jail, the Walla Walla County Jail was designed and built in the 1980s, and was also designed and built as a linear jail. It is connected to the Courts by an elevated walkway (See Walla Walla Jail left, connected to the Courthouse with a skyway). Like Whatcom County, Walla Walla had to contend with the problem of lack of direct observation of inmates. With limited staff, there was limited opportunity to keep an eye on inmates at all times. The new Jail Commander immediately installed security cameras in all cells. The staff now can view inmates at all times, and continue visual checks as a further precaution.
All the older Washington State County Jails were built on a linear design. In the 1990s, there was a shift to pod construction. Now evidence is mounting that with increasingly separate inmate classification systems, housing inmates in smaller units is helpful. So the new style of big pods isn’t working as well because they don’t have the smaller units. Walla Walla has discovered benefits to the linear design. There are small units for inmates that have special classification and need to be segregated—for example a violent sexual predator. Those inmates cannot be put in solitary, and if you don’t have small cells (as with a linear jail), then they take up a larger amount of space designed for more inmates. In addition, the use of security cameras in cells (required by the linear design) has cut down on suicides and assaults.
A Change in Jail Culture Recognized Inmates as Community Members
At the time the County took over control of the jail, it was operated as a holding facility that was crumbling. Inmates were presumed to be “scum bags,” deserving of being locked away in deplorable conditions with a little light piped in. The new DOC head believed that in addition to addressing deferred maintenance, the culture in the jail needed to change. There was an effort to ensure that all people within the jail (inmates and employees) were treated with respect and professionalism. There were some protests to the changes from long-time employees, who characterized treating inmates with respect as creating a “country club” atmosphere. However, the mandate was to treat inmates with respect, while protecting the safety of all within the jail. If any inmate posed a safety threat, then appropriate measures would be taken. However, there was a growing understanding that the inmates were, and would be, members of the Walla Walla community. The County knew that inmates were generally angry upon incarceration, and the goal was not to release them into the community more angry than when they entered the jail.
The County increased jail staffing, and put programs in place to address mental health and substance abuse issues. The Jail instituted a classification program to evaluate inmates upon admission for mental health, substance abuse, medical issues and to classify them by security risk to be placed within the jail accordingly. The jail hired a full-time mental health counselor and started a G.E.D. program.
In addition, the jail focused on re-entry efforts to increase the likelihood that inmates—once released—might find success as productive citizens. For example, the jail employed a former inmate to do (supervised) repair work at the jail in order to pay off his legal financial obligations that often keep inmates tethered to the criminal justice system for life. The Jail Commander has worked toward finding this former inmate a job outside of jail, and is working to find employment for other inmates that are released.
The Jail Became a Primary Focus with Diversion and Transparency as a Goal
Walla Walla County Commissioners believed that the Jail was so important that it needed to be a primary focus and responsibility of whoever was managing the jail. They believed that jail management should be in the hands of corrections experts and not politicians. Within jails, there are high costs and potential liabilities. Walla Walla discovered that the key to liability reduction included improved screening of people coming into the jail and diversion out of jail for those with mental illness and substance abuse to treatment —as well as diversion for others who didn’t need to be incarcerated.
The County wanted to increase transparency regarding jail operations, and so the Commander provides an annual report highlighting operations and facility improvements since 2015. The jail budget increased by about $100,000, but the change in funding policies for maintenance, operations and programs within the jail has resulted (according to County Administration) in decreased liabilities to the county in the long run. In addition, turnover at the jail has decreased since creation of the County DOC. Much of the repair work and painting in the jail has been performed by supervised jail work crews, with significant savings.
Walla Walla County is now a Washington State Leader in Criminal Justice Reform
Walla Walla is not only seeking Accreditation from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, but it is now part of the White House Data Driven Justice Initiative (DDJI), developed to encourage local jurisdictions to use data-driven strategies to divert low-level offenders with mental illness or substance use disorders out of the criminal justice system and change approaches to pre-trial incarceration. Low-risk offenders no longer are in jail simply because they cannot afford bail. The combined strategies have reduced the jail population and have helped stabilize individuals and families, better serve the community and save money.
Walla Walla has a local team of leaders to address and implement the following proven strategies to reduce unnecessary incarceration in the Walla Walla County jail:
· Use data to identify and proactively break the cycle of incarceration. DDJ communities bring data together from across criminal justice and health systems to identify the individuals with the highest number of contacts with police, ambulance, emergency departments, and other services, and link them to health, behavioral health, and social services in the community, with a goal of reducing overreliance on emergency healthcare and encounters with the criminal justice system.
· Give law enforcement and first responders the tools to respond and divert. Police officers, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and firefighters are often front-line responders to people experiencing mental health crises, so DDJ communities create systems and protocols to help de-escalate crisis situations and safely divert people to the appropriate service providers instead of arresting them.
· Use data-driven, validated, pre-trial risk assessment tools to inform pre-trial release decisions. DDJ communities work towards using objective, data-driven, validated risk-assessment tools to identify low-risk defendants held in jail and identify opportunities for their safe release.
Whatcom County’s Choice: To Lead or to Fall Behind
Whatcom County citizens now have a choice between two paths that we can take over the next 30 years. Path One leads to increased taxes and massive debt load to invest in an enormous expansion in Ferndale of the County Jail and the Sheriff’s Headquarters—with no improvement in public safety (based on studies of the effects of the unprecedented increase in incarceration over the past 30 years). Path Two would keep our justice system the same size, and focus a realistic level of investment on renovation of the current County Jail, higher quality youth education and intervention with high-risk children, expansion of the availability of affordable housing and healthcare, and diversion from jail of those people in our community who are non-violent, mentally ill or suffering from addiction.
Next: A Comparison of the Whatcom County Executive’s Plan to Increase Taxes and Debt with Renovation of the Whatcom County Jail