Walla Walla State Penitentiary undergoes major expansion
April 10, 2008
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The Washington State Penitentiary has opened new Intensive Management and close-custody units and transferred inmates to the facilities as part of its $100 million expansion.
“I think it will change the nature of the prison,” said Whitman Professor of Sociology Keith Farrington, who conducts research at the penitentiary with students. “Operations has been centered in the same physical facility for over 100 years and is now moving to a new facility.”
Features include a new control center where administrators monitor the grounds and screen visitors. Another building contains a yard, food services and educational programs. Dozens of inmates have so far been transferred to the new facilities, and by mid-June, the older Blue Mountain Unit will be destroyed and preparations for three new buildings will begin.
When completed, the expansion will make space for almost 900 additional inmates.
“You can’t tell me that increasing the prison population by 1/3 won’t change the interactions,” Farrington said.
“They will develop their own social system, in any number of ways.”
The prison staff has also had to adjust.
“It’s hard to change schedules, access, visiting procedures and classification. Even laundry schedules and meal times have to be adjusted,” Superintendent Jeff Uttecht told the Union-Bulletin.
The prison will hire more staff. There were fears early on that finding employees would be difficult, given a limited pay rate and skyrocketing housing costs, but new recruits are currently training.
Farrington said that community reaction to the penitentiary’s expansion is unlikely to be dramatic, particularly given its relative stability compared to the chaos and frequent violence of the prison in the 1970s.
“I don’t think an increase in size will change perceptions. Now, the prison isn’t the town’s only major icon: there’s wine,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of negativity. By and large, people aren’t concerned. Until something like a riot happens that would result in more negativity, it’s basically out of sight, out of mind.”
“When Whitman expands, everybody drives by and sees it,” he added. “But few people drive out to the prison.”
The Washington State Penitentiary isn’t the only facility in the state currently undergoing a growth spurt.
Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, Larch Corrections Center, Cedar Creek Corrections Center and Airway Heights Corrections Center are also expanding. Altogether, Washington can expect to expand its prison population by about 3,500 by 2009.
“We don’t think you can outbuild the inmate population,” Mike Kenney, assistant deputy of prison departments, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “It’s kind of a ‘Field of Dreams’ syndrome.”
Washington’s recidivism rate for returning offenders has climbed from 31 percent to 37 percent over the last 10 years.