Prison Towns — Walla Walla, Shelton and Spokane
Posted by Arroyoribera on October 6, 2007
In 1998, Spokesman-Review reporters collaborated in a six-part series on crime in Spokane. The series began June 14, 1998, with six articles, including this one, City of Second Chances. Nearly ten years after it was written, the six-part series remains an important sources of information, analysis, and insight about the community which hosts the second largest prison in the state of Washington.
How Spokane comes to terms in humane and realistic ways with the realities of poverty, homelessness, mental illness and crime may well be a more important measure of who we are than our civic show events, such as Bloomsday and Pig Out in the Park. As we can see by the recent history of Spokane, we have a long way to go. In fact, it could be said that if we have even started, we may have moved backwards rather than forwards.
|Sunday, June 14, 1998|
City of Second Chances
(first of six parts)
By Julie Sullivan, Karen Dorn Steele and Kim Barker
Society demands criminals pay for their crimes, but society is paying too. With a disproportionate number of released inmates choosing to start over here, Spokane is paying more than its share.
A funnel of convicted felons is aimed at Spokane.
Ten years of get-tough-on-crime laws have poured thousands into the state prison system with little thought as to where they’d eventually come out.
But criminals don’t go to prison so much as they go through prison. From the moment they enter, inmates begin moving toward a final destination: outside.
For a startling number, the last stop is Spokane.
Colin Mulvany – The Spokesman-Review
Department of Corrections field officer Rick Jost searches the new apartment of Carl Streeter in downtown Spokane. Streeter, convicted of assault in Yakima County, recently was released from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. “I was living on the streets in Yakima. The folks in Walla Walla wanted me to come to Spokane.”
The number of former prisoners choosing Spokane County as their new home has leaped an estimated 84 percent in the past five years, higher than the state average. More than half of those offenders were convicted somewhere else.
The city’s downtown bus Plaza, shopping malls and neighborhoods are becoming hunting grounds where community corrections officers search for ex-offenders and ministers try to counsel them.
While sex offenders and the most violent criminals are supervised by community corrections officers for one or more years after prison, most other offenders aren’t. They leave prison with $40 and a bus ticket.
More than 1,800 inmates were released to Spokane County between 1992 and 1997, state records show. Interviews, state prison data and other government records also reveal that:
No state, city or county agency is monitoring the civic impact of this ex-inmate migration.
State Department of Corrections officials aren’t aware of Spokane’s emerging reputation as a city of second chances. They say tracking offenders is not part of their mission.
The mayor, City Council, county commission and county prosecutor know almost nothing about the former prison inmates living here. The police and sheriff’s departments are notified when most individual convicts are released, but don’t track the overall numbers. Even social service agencies that help offenders or their families don’t monitor the trend.
Kay Walter, superintendent of the Airway Heights Corrections Center, says the state’s 13,800 inmates are closely watched when they’re behind bars. But they quickly vanish into the community once they’re released.
“We don’t track people very well when they leave the system. A high percentage just walk out the door,” Walter says.
So many offenders are now clustered around Spokane that community corrections officers are stationed in neighborhood cop shops. When officers want to look for sex offenders, they walk through the STA Bus Plaza. A volunteer who ministers to offenders in prison runs into ex-felons every few minutes downtown.
This flow of offenders into Spokane is part of a state and national trend: More people behind bars, and more eventually coming out into the community.
Throughout Washington, 85,500 offenders are under supervision — double the number a decade ago. The state is second only to Texas in the number of people on parole, probation or community supervision.
In Spokane, many former prisoners pay taxes and rent. They make calls for telemarketing firms, cook in restaurants from West Main to State Line. They work as machinists, computer instructors and auto mechanics. They sweep streets on the West Plains, swab floors at the malls, stock shelves at the Spokane Food Bank. They repair cars, wrap tortillas, stuff advertising inserts into the newspaper.
There are success stories like that of Larry Ecklund, who after serving time for drug crimes is drug free and sober. His East Central business as a plumber and general contractor is thriving. His relationships with his wife and grown children are strong. He’s taking 30-mile bike rides, exercising his retrievers, restoring antiques. “Enjoying life,” he says.
There are horror stories too.
The impact of former prisoners isn’t obvious in Spokane County crime rates, which fluctuate yearly and tend to be affected by home-grown criminals. But the consequences of one-man crime waves from released offenders have been enormous. Consider:
“He asked for my telephone number. I’d never given out my number before and I thought, what could it hurt?” says Kassie Reyes, now 15.
“The public is focused on the 13,800 people in prison,” says Secretary of Corrections Joe Lehman. But there are 85,500 people under state supervision living in Washington communities. “Which ones represent the greatest public safety risk?”
Colin Mulvany – The Spokesman-Review
Leo Dickerson, an inmate in the minimum- security prison camp at Airway Heights Corrections Center, prepares ground for a new scoreboard at a park next to Sunset Elementary School. Airway Heights and other communities use supervised inmate crews for litter pick-up and public works projects.
‘They think this is paradise’
Almost as soon as inmates enter one of Washington’s 12 adult prisons, they begin working on a plan for getting out.
The plan helps determine eventual moves within the system to minimum-security camps, pre-release and work release. Then, 120 days before finishing their sentence, most inmates list an address that is forwarded to a community corrections officer.
The state must approve the address and can stop a sex offender from, say, locating next to a day-care center. But state officials can do nothing about the choice of community.
“We can’t say ‘You can’t go to Spokane,’ ” Deputy Director Dave Savage says.
The number of offenders trying to find an address here has become a nuisance for some agencies. The Union Gospel Mission in Spokane was receiving 19 requests a week asking to serve as a release address.
“We were having a horrible time,” says Don Munday, assistant director for men’s services. He spent his first week on the job two years ago writing prisons and corrections officers to stop it.
The Mission accepts a small number of offenders who qualify for an intense two-year program with a team of therapists, counselors, job trainers and ministers.
Still, requests keep coming to the Mission, to the Salvation Army, to downtown landlords and distant pen pals, asking to provide an address.
Offenders look to Spokane as a place to make a fresh start.
The city is far away from the West Side — where 77 percent of the state’s criminals committed their crimes and were sentenced. Far away from their victims, the police and the old neighborhood.
“I call Spokane a city of refuge,” says Leone Johnson, who has ministered to people imprisoned and jailed in Spokane County for 22 years. “Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and Yakima is where they’ve all gotten in trouble and where they can’t go back.”
When Don Byers leaves prison after 16 years this December, he doesn’t want to return to Tacoma, Everett or Seattle, where his old partners in crime live. The 62-year-old armed robber wants to stay here.
“Spokane is a big enough town to exist in, but not big enough to get in trouble again with the same old associates. And even at my age, I can probably find a job,” he says.
Convicted felons can get work within days of arriving, as restaurant cooks, dishwashers, sheet metal workers and construction laborers. Extensive bus service allows them to commute as far as Cheney or Liberty Lake.
The selection of low-income housing available is double the state rate. Apartments downtown start at $48 a week. Add to that a low unemployment rate of about 4 percent and a smattering of charities, mental health programs and drug and alcohol treatment.
There are other reasons that inmates choose Spokane over smaller communities like Walla Walla, says researcher Keith Farrington of Whitman College.
“Night life and prospective mates.”
Spokane also draws from other states. With its booming economy, Washington attracts five felons under supervision from other states for every two it sends elsewhere, the Department of Corrections reports.
About 440 offenders supervised by the state in Spokane County are from Idaho, Montana, Utah and other states. They transfer here to find work and get away from harsher laws and penal systems elsewhere.
“They think this is paradise here in the state of Washington,” says Bruce Woods, a community corrections officer who supervises several out-of-staters.
Colin Mulvany – The Spokesman-Review
Carpenter Mike Bass paints doors at a West Central business. Bass is under supervision after serving five years for armed robbery in New Mexico. He moved to Spokane after marrying a pen pal who lives here. “I’m slowly but surely trying to get back to civilization.”
Mike Bass, 42, served more than five years in a New Mexico prison for armed robbery. While in prison, he met and married a Spokane woman — all through the mail. When he was released in January, he flew north and settled with her in a West Central neighborhood.
The union didn’t last: “Let’s just say the attraction was not the same in person as it was on paper.” But within three days of arriving, he walked around the corner and got a job as a carpenter. He found a 12-step substance-abuse meeting he likes and a new apartment.
“I’d never been here before in my life,” he says. “Now it’s just me, the boss and Bruce,” his corrections officer. “But I want to stay. I want to make it here.”
‘Corrections is a growth industry’
To understand how Spokane became a destination for felons, look back at crime and politics over the last 30 years.
Between 1965 and 1975, the country’s murder rate nearly doubled. Fear of crime grew, not just in poor city neighborhoods, but in middle-class suburbs, writes author David Anderson in “Sensible Justice.”
Then, in the mid-1980s, crack hit cities from Los Angeles to Tacoma and Spokane. More than any previous drug epidemic, crack cocaine created what Anderson calls an urban arms race, raising violence — and fear — to new levels.
Politicians responded with get-tough-on-crime laws. Seven sentencing laws in as many years put an additional 4,500 offenders behind Washington state bars.
Most Spokane legislators voted for these laws, with strong public support. Their goal: put repeat offenders away faster and for longer sentences.
“I’d rather build another prison than more office buildings for state employees,” Sen. Bob McCaslin, a Spokane Valley Republican, said in 1993.
“The public has said they want us to take bad people off the streets for their protection,’ echoed Sen. James West, another Republican from Spokane.
Voters weighed in as well. The “three strikes you’re out” initiative for various violent offenders will add 830 inmates by 2012. The “hard time for armed crime” law, another 1,300.
Even the federal government took part with a crime bill that put 100,000 police officers on the street and more criminals in jail.
The result: Washington’s prison population has jumped 71 percent since 1980 while its general population has risen just 13 percent. The most dramatic increase has come in the last seven years.
When former Secretary Chase Riveland took over Corrections in the mid-1980s, there were so many prison beds available, the state rented them out to other states and made nearly $60 million.
Ten years later, the state is squeezing in offenders by doubling the number of bunks in handicapped or larger cells at Airway Heights Corrections Center and converting storage rooms to hold up to eight men.
Riveland once quipped that if the growth rate were straight-lined, by the year 2057 everyone in Washington would either be in prison — or be working in one.
Airway Heights is now the state’s second largest prison, with 2,043 men. Only the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla holds more, with 2,300 behind bars.
All told, the state Department of Corrections spends nearly $52 million a year in Spokane County. Corrections’ 838 employees in Spokane County work in offices from Hillyard to the Spokane Valley, from Airway Heights to Medical Lake. It’s a work force equal to Gonzaga’s or Eastern Washington University’s.
“We are in the Department of Corrections business here in Spokane County just like Shelton and Walla Walla,” says Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser.
In five years, the prison at Airway Heights has quadrupled in size and the work-release program has swelled. A third more beds were added to the work-release center for women, and the center for men is expected to increase by a quarter in the next several years.
“Corrections is a growth industry in that once you get it in your community, it continues to grow,” says Katherine Carlson, a cultural anthropologist who has studied Washington prisons.
Prisons bring good-paying state jobs and lucrative contracts that serve the mini-cities behind bars. They’re a “clean” industry insulated from most economic recessions. They never move to Mexico.
“We build them and staff them for the rest of our lives,” says Walter, the superintendent at Airway Heights.
The growth in Spokane has swept up so many employees that qualification exams that used to attract hundreds for correctional officer positions now draw a quarter of the candidates. Average pay: $2,700 a month and many jobs require only a high school education.
It’s a career with a future. The state expects to need 2,850 more prison beds in the next decade. Annual cost to house each offender: $24,494.
“We have to remember the enormous number of jobs created by corrections,” says Kaye Adkins, the top Corrections official in Eastern Washington.
“Those are our neighbors and friends.”
Community impact isn’t studied
In the scramble to lock offenders up, there is almost no attention paid to the impact of prisons on nearby communities or what happens when offenders are released.
Spokane’s downtown apartments and low-income neighborhoods are filling up with felons, many of whom continue friendships begun in prison.
“Nobody cares about communities,” says researcher Carlson, who studied the prison at Clallam Bay.
Kasey Kramer, Spokane County’s community services director, was astonished to learn of the rapid growth of Spokane’s ex-felon population.
Kramer has seen the impact of mental health patients treated at Eastern State Hospital who choose to stay in the Spokane area when released.
For every one Spokane County resident treated at Eastern, another 11 from other counties stay here after treatment, Kramer says.
“We call it drift. We’ve documented it from the state mental hospital side, but not for ex-felons,” Kramer says.
Money is not available for agencies to study these impacts, he says. “It is a weakness at the state level.”
The Rev. Michael Treleaven, a Jesuit political science professor at Gonzaga University, monitors prison issues for Amnesty International.
“This is the politics of vengeance,” he says. “To throw money at prisons, but not at the communities where they eventually settle is dishonest. This is a serious issue for Spokane.”
Farrington, the Whitman College professor, has spent years trying to gauge the impact of the century-old penitentiary on Walla Walla, but has never seen a study on what happens to offenders when they’re released.
“You think it would be logical,” he says. “There’s probably a lot more screw-ups than we’re aware of and the flip side is — and equally sad — that there are some people who go through and get straightened out and we don’t know that either.”
Statistics show that Walla Walla, a small farm town, has violent and property crime rates from 52 to 93 percent higher than the national rate over a 17-year period.
Despite the influx of ex-convicts into Spokane, violent crime rates here have not increased.
The property crime rate is higher than the state average, but the reasons for that are unclear. Calls to Spokane’s Crime Check also have increased more than 40 percent since 1993.
Former Spokane Police Chief Terry Mangan predicts the new ex-felons will nudge up the crime rate soon. They just haven’t been here long enough.
“When prisoners remain in an area for an appreciable time, 70 percent of them eventually reoffend,” Mangan says.
Statistics on the nation’s 400,000 criminal offenders released each year back his prediction.
Washington officials say 32 percent of offenders return to prison within five years.
But that figure is misleading. It only counts offenders who return to a Washington prison and not those who wind up in county jails or other states’ facilities.
“No matter what study you look at, they’re reoffending,” says Police Lt. Mark Caillier of Salem, Ore. “Which means your community now has to deal with it.”
Caillier worked on studies that show the average inmate had 17 felony arrests before being sent to prison.
Crime analysts in the Spokane Police Department agree that for some people, crime is a way of life.
Colin Mulvany – The Spokesman-Review
Ex-inmates who violate their supervision face Department of Corrections hearing specialist Lyn Paxton. Tyrone Brown, 32, listens as field officer Paul Schmidt lists violations that include using drugs and failing to report.
“Most criminals who rape and burglarize also wife beat and drive without a license. They fish without a license,” says Toni Sneva, who keeps a database of known offenders for the Spokane Police Department.
“Everything they do is a violation of the law.”
Even if they don’t break the law again, former inmates can be a drain on the community.
More than half of the felons in prison read, write and compute at less than a ninth-grade level, according to the Department of Corrections. Up to 76 percent of inmates are addicted to drugs or alcohol, but the state has the ability to treat only about 20 percent of those addicts, says Patty Terry, a chemical dependency coordinator in the prison system.
The National Criminal Justice Commission reports that some inmates leave prison with a sort of stress disorder.
It appears that prison damages a person’s ability to respond to stress, leaving a choice between gritting one’s teeth or lashing out, the report says. Problems are not easily talked through, but are likely to result in a blowup or withdrawal. In a job, it’s lost tempers or failure to show up for work.
Inmate families, often splintered by the imprisonment, find little support in Spokane beyond a list of phone numbers for social service agencies already struggling to meet the city’s needs.
“We’re a city that’s blind and asleep,” says prison volunteer Johnson. “If people were awake they would do something for people who are coming and bringing families and starting families here.”
People who make the transition from law breaker to law abider can’t usually do it alone. Larry Ecklund made it with help – from Judge James Murphy who sent him to Drug Court, from local drug counselors and supportive 12-step groups, from his state community corrections officer who visited regularly.
“My life has never been this good,” Ecklund says. “I feel like I’m the product of these people.”
‘No more than our share’
To see where Spokane could be headed, take a close look at Salem.
Oregon’s capital city has served as its top prison town since statehood. Salem houses five of the state’s 12 prisons plus drug and alcohol treatment centers and halfway houses. It has the largest institutional population of any city its size in the nation.
Nevertheless, the city is so like Spokane demographically that Salem police come here to observe trends in crime and policing.
Like Spokane, Salem is a mid-sized city miles from the urban center where most crime is committed.
It offers a multitude of low-wage and seasonal jobs. It gets back considerably more offenders than it puts in the system. And for years, the phenomenon went unnoticed.
Then, 10 years ago, the city realized it tallied more emergency calls per capita than Portland.
Subsequent investigation revealed the problem was directly related to the number of ex-offenders who stayed.
“It’s like the miracle of compounding. If you’re putting one in and the system is not fixing it, you’re getting back compound interest on your problem you don’t want,” says Lt. Caillier of Salem Police.
“We had an incredible number of our people who were ex-offenders, many of whom would reoffend and commit crimes,” says Rep. Peter Courtney. “They had incredible social needs, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and illiteracy that put a heavy burden in counties.”
In 1989, Courtney co-sponsored the “Send them home” bill that required freed prisoners to return to the county of conviction. California has a similar law.
The law cut returns but loopholes for family, employment and personal safety continues to return 33 percent more offenders than Salem incarcerates. The city still:
Community awareness has helped Salem residents plan better but has not made the planning any easier.
If Spokane offers more help to offenders and families, that may attract even more. Yet if the city doesn’t increase services, it drains help from people who already live here.
“If you build it, do they come? If you’re successful, does that mean folks are going to come to Spokane, stay and reoffend? Those are the questions you as a community need to be asking,” says Caillier.
Salem has used its research to fight new prisons. City leaders don’t say: “Not in my back yard,” but rather, “No more than our share.”
“You’ve got to have a mayor and city council and police chiefs who flat out say this is happening and we’re willing to share our burden but not threaten public safety,” Courtney says.
“Where are your state legislators? They have as much responsibility in this. Where are the prosecutors and the judges? You have to have more than the city council. You have to have a team to fight this.”