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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Prisons Secretary Says No Plans To Ship Inmates Out-Of-State

The Washington state Department of Corrections has contracted with a private prison company to house up to 1,000 prisoners in Michigan to ease overcrowding.

The Washington state Department of Corrections has contracted with The GEO Group, Inc, a Florida-based private prison company, to house up to 1,000 prisoners in Michigan to ease overcrowding.

In a May 21 press release, The GEO Group said it expects to begin taking in Washington prisoners starting this fall. However, a contradictory statement from the Washington DOC said, “There are no current plans to utilize the contract.”

Washington DOC Secretary Bernard Warner reaffirmed that in an interview Tuesday. He said sending prisoners out-of-state remains a “last resort.”

“We do not have an operational plan at this point to transfer inmates out of Washington state,” Warner said.

Washington’s 17,498 bed prison system is over capacity with 18,426 inmates as of March 31. Medium security beds are at a particular premium. Warner said he would activate the contract with The GEO Group “if it really looked like we were compromising the safety of our staff and our facilities.”

Washington inmates would be sent to the North Lake Correctional Facility in rural Baldwin, Michigan, 85 miles north of Grand Rapids. The “Facility,” as it’s known, has been mothballed for several years.

“Punk prison,” as Michigan press reports call it, first opened in 1998 to house Michigan juveniles convicted as adults. That contract ended in 2005 after an audit found numerous problems, including lax compliance with security and safety policies.

The prison briefly reopened in 2011 to house California inmates, but a California Department of Corrections spokeswoman said that contract ended early at The GEO Group’s request because California wasn’t sending enough prisoners to the facility.

In 2010, the governor of Michigan signed legislation that allowed the North Lake Correctional Facility to house adult prisoners. This year, Michigan lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow the facility to house the highest security inmates.

Besides the contract with Washington, The GEO Group also recently announced a contract to house up to 675 Vermont inmates at the Michigan facility.

The last time Washington held inmates out of state was in 2010. At the peak in 2007, Washington had more than 1,200 inmates in private prisons in Arizona, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

The GEO Group replaces Correctional Corporation of American (CCA) as the state’s “capacity contingency planning” vendor. Under the new contract, Washington DOC said it would pay GEO $60 per day per prisoner and the company would cover the cost to transport the inmates from Washington to Michigan.

The union representing front-line Washington DOC staff has criticized the contract. “Private, for-profit prisons have a dismal track record in terms of ensuring staff safety, curbing violence, and preparing prisoners to return to the community,” said Michelle Woodrow, president of Teamsters Local 117, in a statement.

The GEO Group has a controversial track record. It runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. In recent weeks, the company has come under fire for injuries a detainee at that facility sustained at the hands of staff. Previously, detainees in Tacoma have staged hunger strikes to protest conditions.

An April 2015 Department of Justice Inspector General report found a GEO detention facility in Texas “consistently struggled to meet or exceed baseline contractual standards” and “received an unacceptable number of deficiencies and notices of concern.”

In 2012, a federal judge used the word “cesspool” to describe a juvenile prison in Mississippi operated by The GEO Group. Among the allegations were that staff had sex with the youth who were locked up.

Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., argues that private prisons maximize profits by cutting costs at the expense of prison safety and the wellbeing of the inmates. Takei said Washington should look for in-state solutions to overcrowding.

“Shipping prisoners to far away out-of-state facilities, whoever they’re run by, is a harmful, counter-productive criminal justice policy,” he said.

A spokesman for The GEO Group said via email that the company would have no further comment on its contract with the state of Washington.

Secretary Warner said he’s confident that the state’s contract with The GEO Group is robust enough to ensure “orderly operation” of the Michigan prison. He added that his staff visited the facility and was impressed both with the prison itself and the opportunity for inmates who might be sent there to receive in-prison programming.

The GEO Group says the three-year contract is worth $24 million per year if Washington state sends a full 1,000 inmates to Michigan. The state could renew the contract to five years.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."