Grays Harbor County is shopping new jails.
Commissioners set aside $1 million as “seed money,” which could help fund studies or purchase land. They have been in talks with officials from Mason County about a potential regional facility.
Grays Harbor officials also have toured newer facilities to see what tens of millions of dollars can buy.
Officials say the Grays Harbor Correctional Facility, which is run by the county Sheriff’s Office, is on its last legs.
“Our existing jail is falling apart,” Mark Cox, the county’s director of community development, said.
“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).”
Grays Harbor and Mason counties have jointly funded three studies to examine needs for detention centers.
“(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 is interviewing officials across invested departments in Grays Harbor County this month to compile the studies. Each county’s needs will be audited separately and one study will look at the potential for a joint facility. Those reports are expected to be complete by the middle of next year.
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 that need to be made for the 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’s need is for 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.
He said some revenue will become available soon as the county finishes paying off its courthouse bonds for repairs and improvements after the 2001 earthquake. But that won’t cover it all.
“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.