After 18 months of work, commission presents report on Clark County Jail

The group reached consensus on number of beds and location, but will leave the eye-opening price tag to the County Council

CLARK COUNTY — In well over an hour, the potential price of a new Clark County Jail was rarely mentioned during a work session for county councilors on Wednesday.

Jail beds inside the Clark County Jail are shown in this photo. Photo courtesy Clark County Corrections
Jail beds inside the Clark County Jail are shown in this photo. Photo courtesy Clark County Corrections

The report was the final official action for the Corrections Facility Advisory Commission (CFAC) comprised of 24 members, ending 18 months of intense work that resulted in a 423-page document outlining the needs and challenges for the county when it comes to building a new jail.

The commission was led by former county commissioner and State Senator Craig Pridemore, CEO of Columbia River Mental Health Services.

“In my 14 years of elected office, I think I’ve served on two-to-three dozen different blue ribbon committees of this sort,” said Pridemore. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a public policy challenge as difficult as this one is.”

Despite the difficulties, Pridemore was effusive in his praise of the committee members, calling them among the best he has ever worked with.

“I had hoped that our committee would be able to put together a final recommendation, have the solution, and be able to say to you ‘this is it, it’s all finished,'” said Pridemore. “The reality is when you dig into this issue and you spend 18 months around all of those issues, you find out that this is an extremely complex and difficult thing to accomplish in this political environment.”

The reason price was rarely mentioned, though it is part of the official report, is that Pridemore and the commission readily admitted that their estimates represent a best practice model, and a launching pad for a discussion about how close the county can reasonably afford to get to that.

Even without a final recommendation on exactly how the county could proceed, Pridemore said he feels as if the 18 months worth of meetings were not wasted.

“There is a clear statement and agreement amongst all the committee members that something must be done,” said Pridemore, “that the jail as it currently exists, both in terms of its quality and age, but also its capacity, the county has got to do something for this community’s future.”

Under the two proposals CFAC included in their final report, initial costs to replace the current jail downtown and expand the minimum security work release facility on Lower River Road could run upwards of $421 million. Beyond that, operational expenses for the corrections department could increase to between $46.2 and $60.7 million, much higher than the jail’s current annual operating budget of $27 million. Much of that is due to added staffing levels to switch from the current indirect supervision model to a more modern direct supervision approach.

While the indirect model is less expensive up front, Pridemore says their research discovered that it can lead to higher costs in other areas.

“What ends up happening is you have key inmates who become the dominant force inside that particular area,” Pridemore said, “which does lead to significant disciplinary issues.”

A lack of natural light is one of the concerns for the current Clark County Jail, built in 1984. Photo courtesy Clark County Corrections
A lack of natural light is one of the concerns for the current Clark County Jail, built in 1984. Photo courtesy Clark County Corrections

Pridemore said their recommendation would be for the little-known Law and Justice Council, a 26-member group made up of area city and county leaders, along with outside experts, to examine whether a limited direct supervision model could be feasible, in order to reduce staffing costs and the size of the needed facility.

“It’s an impressive organization,” Pridemore said of the Law and Justice Council, “and I think this is a good meaty issue to bring them together and to engage them in a huge conversation that’s going to impact every one of them in the future.”

“I would hate to see Law and Justice become another working group that works for another 18 months trying to figure this out,” said Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins. 

“I believe that we are the next taskforce,” said County Chair Eileen Quiring, noting that the CFAC members and Law and Justice will be used to help answer more detailed questions about jail operations and requirements.

Council questions

Many of the questions asked by the councilors on Wednesday revolved around how the committee came up with their recommendations. That included a proposed 850 to 880 beds, up from the 590 available now between the main jail and the work center.

Parts of the existing 35-year old Clark County Jail show significant signs of wear and tear. Photo courtesy Clark County Corrections
Parts of the existing 35-year old Clark County Jail show significant signs of wear and tear. Photo courtesy Clark County Corrections

“This 800-plus number, is that anticipating best practices?” asked Councilor Gary Medvigy. “Did you already take a look at that, or are you recommending that we look at best practices as a more fruitful way to get that number down?”

Pridemore noted that Clark County is already proactive when it comes to diversion programs for many offenses, and more are coming online. He said the bed number count involved a lot of discussion with the county prosecutor’s office regarding other ways to limit incarceration.

“There was actually an initial estimate that you could go down to as low as 800 beds,” said Pridemore. “We felt that’s probably getting a little too risky, now that you won’t have adequate capacity, so we came to the 850 to 880 with a lot of advice from the sheriff and his staff.”

Pridemore also noted that the final bed number estimate was around 500 fewer than their original estimates.

“We recognized in law enforcement, particularly going into the early 2000’s, that we’re not able to arrest our way out of crime problems,” said Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, vice-chair of CFAC. “It’s super expensive, and we’re seeing that here today.”

Pridemore said their estimate also took into account more recent programs aimed at reducing the recidivism of those facing a criminal charge.

“Through the sheriff’s leadership, and Chief (Ric) Bishop and a number of others, the county has now incorporated drug and alcohol treatment into the jail,” he said.

Bishop, the chief corrections deputy, noted that the average stay in their jail is around 19 days, with the majority of people remaining far less than that. The average stay of those who’ve been tried and sentenced is generally around 38 days.

Olson also wondered why a building that is only 35 years old could be in such irreparably bad shape that it couldn’t even be remodeled, and needed to be replaced.

“It’s kind of like running your car,” said Bishop, “it lasts a lot longer if you run it at 65 miles per hour than 90. We’ve been running our jail at 95 miles an hour for the past 30 years. The doors open and shut quite often; more than they’re designed for, and it just wears out.”

The councilors also discussed whether there could potentially be a process of phasing in the construction over time, rather than doing the entire project at once. 

Bishop said if they decided to approach things that way, their medical facilities and intake area would be top priority.

“You can build me more bedroom space in another part of the house, but my front door is too small,” he quipped.

Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee said he’s hopeful the work done by CFAC, along with previous studies on the issue of a new jail, could be helpful in deciding what other questions still need to be answered. The council will need to determine a final price tag and seek approval of a building bond from voters.

“Hopefully this is providing you with the materials you need to finally dig into this and find out how we do move forward,” said Pridemore. “I don’t envy you that task.”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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