Open part of jail to home­less, County Coun­cil mem­ber says

The News Tribune - - Front Page - BY SEAN ROBIN­SON srobin­[email protected]­new­stri­

Ac­cord­ing to Pierce County Coun­cil­woman Pam Roach, it’s just an idea, just a ques­tion: Why not open 700 shut­tered beds in the county jail to peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness?

Ac­cord­ing to Sher­iff Paul Pas­tor, whose of­fice runs the jail, it’s a du­bi­ous idea and a ques­tion grounded in mis­in­for­ma­tion: It ig­nores li­a­bil­ity prob­lems, skates past po­ten­tially mas­sive retrofitting costs and ex­ag­ger­ates po­ten­tial jail ca­pac­ity.

The ques­tion ap­pears in a sur­vey Roach mailed to her con­stituents last month at pub­lic ex­pense, us­ing her county com­mu­ni­ca­tions bud­get. It leads with a photo Roach said she took her­self: a view of the jail’s older sec­tion, shot from Ta­coma Av­enue.

Roach said 67 per­cent of con­stituents who have re­sponded to the mailer are all for the idea.

From the sher­iff’s stand­point, the er­ro­neous in­for­ma­tion starts with the im­age it­self.

“She took a pic­ture of the wrong build­ing,” said sher­iff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, adding that the older sec­tion of the jail is brim-full of in­mates, with no room to spare.

Asked for com­ment, County Coun­cil mem­bers Doug Richard­son and Derek Young de­ferred to Pas­tor and his le­gal au­thor­ity.

“I’ll let (the sher­iff’s de­part­ment) speak to the chal­lenges with this idea,” Young said. “If Coun­cilmem­ber Roach wants to make a se­ri­ous pro­posal, I’ll con­sider it at that time.”

Pas­tor, alerted to the mailer, sent Roach a lengthy note on Jan. 8, sug­gest­ing she should have con­sulted him be­fore­hand.

“I would have pre­ferred the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plain why I do not sup­port the use of jail space for home­less­ness,” he wrote. “The pri­mary rea­son is risk and li­a­bil­ity for the County. There may be a num­ber of things which you are not aware of in the area of jail op­er­a­tions.”

The jail is ac­tu­ally two jails: an older, hard-se­cu­rity sec­tion typ­i­cally re­served for high-risk of­fend­ers, and a new sec­tion de­signed for lower-level in­mates, con­structed in 2003 for $59.2 mil­lion.

At its the­o­ret­i­cal max­i­mum, the jail could house al­most

1,800 in­mates. In prac­tice, largely due to bud­get con­sid­er­a­tions, the num­ber is lower, with an av­er­age daily pop­u­la­tion

of 1,166.

That means sec­tions of the newer por­tion of the jail go un­used. Those “pods,” de­signed to hold 84 in­mates in a dor­mi­tory style-set­ting, su­per­vised by a sin­gle cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer, rep­re­sent the tar­get for Roach’s idea.

She en­vi­sions home­less peo­ple us­ing the pods, with so­cial ser­vice work­ers (not county em­ploy­ees) on hand to pro­vide as­sis­tance.

“What I’m talk­ing about is get­ting hun­dreds of peo­ple off the street,” she said. “It is cold, it is rainy, it’s wet. We want to give shel­ter. We need to get them to come in so we can help them. The con­cept here isn’t that we have jail guards, be­cause they’re not in­mates.”

Part of Roach’s im­pulse stems from her frus­tra­tion with a Novem­ber de­ci­sion by County Coun­cil mem­bers to al­low tiny-home de­vel­op­ments in Pierce County over her ob­jec­tions. She also op­posed a planned 16-bed cri­sis sta­bi­liza­tion cen­ter in Park­land aimed at pro­vid­ing im­me­di­ate ser­vice to peo­ple fac­ing men­tal health emer­gen­cies.

“We’re only nickel-and­dim­ing with these fly-bynight pro­grams,” she said. “The peo­ple in my dis­trict don’t fa­vor spend­ing $100,000 a unit on tiny homes. They do want to find places for the home­less. The jail would be a very good place to ex­plore for help­ing the home­less.”

Roach in­sists that 700 beds are avail­able. Pas­tor says the real num­ber is far lower. He adds that un­used ca­pac­ity at the jail should be re­served for in­mates and crim­i­nal of­fend­ers as the county grows and needs emerge.

“Con­trary to what your mail­ing may sug­gest, there are no va­cant beds in the old jail,” he wrote in his note to her. “On the 4th floor of the new jail, there are two units which are fully out­fit­ted and ready to use for jail hous­ing. The to­tal beds in these units is 168. These are the only units avail­able for hous­ing in­mates in emer­gent sit­u­a­tions, such as con­struc­tion projects, unit equip­ment fail­ure(s), emer­gency book­ing needs, etc.”

Roach, known for com­plain­ing that county lead­ers ex­clude her from prepara­tory con­ver­sa­tions about pol­icy ideas, said she spoke to Pas­tor and Cor­rec­tions Chief Patti Jack­son-Kid­der about her pro­posal long be­fore she sent the mail piece. The 700-bed num­ber came from those con­ver­sa­tions, she said.

The sher­iff’s de­part­ment has a dif­fer­ent view.

“Pam is mis­taken,” Troyer said. “I’ve talked with both Patti and Paul, and they have no mem­ory of that con­ver­sa­tion.”

Roach also didn’t dis­cuss her idea with Robert Thoms and Keith Blocker, two Ta­coma City Coun­cil mem­bers whose districts sur­round the jail. Since the site is within the city, Ta­coma po­lice would have ju­ris­dic­tion over mat­ters re­quir­ing a law en­force­ment re­sponse.

Thoms, call­ing Roach’s sug­ges­tion “a pretty provoca­tive idea,” said she didn’t dis­cuss it with him, though he added he was will­ing to ex­plore all av­enues to ad­dress the home­less­ness cri­sis.

Blocker was more blunt. “I have not had any dis­cus­sions with Pam Roach ever,” Blocker said. “I’ve not heard of that idea, from her or any­body else from the County Coun­cil. I’m not an ad­vo­cate for putting peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness in­side of our jails. I think we could be far more cre­ative in terms of ad­dress­ing the home­less epi­demic. I would be happy to work with the County Coun­cil to fig­ure out other strate­gies.”

Roach guessed it would cost $200,000 to cre­ate a sep­a­rate en­try at the new jail for home­less ser­vices. Troyer and Pas­tor said it would likely cost more, though they did not of­fer es­ti­mates. They added that it wouldn’t be as sim­ple as knock­ing down a wall and build­ing a new door.

“You’ve got all the costs to retro­fit,” Troyer said. “You’ve got ex­its, en­trances, el­e­va­tors. You’d be mix­ing pop­u­la­tions.”

Pas­tor’s note to Roach added that the his­tory of the jail in­cludes a lon­grun­ning fed­eral law­suit that im­posed var­i­ous re­stric­tions and penal­ties due to over­crowd­ing. He con­tended that adding a new layer of home­less ser­vices in the same lo­ca­tion would cre­ate new risks.

“The suggested use would jeop­ar­dize the over­all op­er­a­tional man­age­ment of the jail by vi­o­lat­ing the safety perime­ter,” he wrote. “It could cre­ate other risks re­lated to dis­ease trans­mis­sion, evac­u­a­tion is­sues, and the dif­fi­culty and cost of con­trol­ling men­tally ill and ad­dicted per­sons in a crowded, con­fined, dor­mi­tory-type space. ... I ap­pre­ci­ate that you seek to find so­lu­tions. But use of the jail would likely cre­ate more prob­lems than it would solve.”

Roach, un­de­terred, pointed out that King County lead­ers de­cided last year to open a shut­tered wing of their down­town jail to peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness.

“None of this has been stud­ied,” she said. “It is an idea. This is be­ing done in other places. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and so you find that way.”

PETER HA­LEY News Tri­bune

Pierce County Cor­rec­tions Sgt. Mike Heish­man calls out to a pris­oner in unit 2C in the newer wing of the Pierce County Jail in 2013.

PETER HA­LEY News Tri­bune

Pierce County Coun­cil­woman Pam Roach says the newer sec­tion of the Pierce County Jail in down­town Ta­coma could be opened to the home­less, but Sher­iff Paul Pas­tor says the idea is du­bi­ous and sim­plis­tic.

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