Spokane County Jail staff have asked for a $32 million temporary jail to replace an aging facility near the airport they argue is near the end of its usable life.
The Geiger Jail facility is a 50-year-old former military base which can handle around 300 inmates. Spokane County Detention Services Director Mike Sparber said it has serious sewage and infrastructure problems that could cost millions to fix.
“Our concern is conditions of confinement. I want to make sure we can continue to provide safe and secure structures for our inmates to be in,” Sparber said. “But it also has to have water, it has to have sewer and it has to have steam and it has to have heat. It’s those things that I’m concerned about and I want to get it at least on the radar for everyone to look at, because that facility has lived beyond its years.”
When the county was releasing inmates to keep the population down, inmates were spread out at both the downtown and Geiger.
Sparber says once the population goes back up, both facilities will be dealing with problems they weren’t designed for. That's already happening. He says courts and police are starting to relax COVID-19 measures meant to keep population low during pandemic.
During the pandemic the jail population was reduced by more than a third of what it normally is. At it’s lowest last April, the jail population was at 528 according to county data. Detention Services had about 775 people in custody as of Thursday evening.
“I’m pretty confident that our population is going to grow back up into the numbers we had in 20,” Sparber said. “Even in January, we had 903 inmates and I think we’re well on our way to doing that again.”
Sparber has asked the county commissioners to replace Geiger with temporary jails, known as Sprung Structures. Those have been used as barracks or for disaster relief, have metal frames and weather proof shells. He says they will cost around $32 million. They would have space for 448 people and there would be seven structures altogether.
Commissioners first considered temporary jails last year.
The proposal was seen as a way to spread out inmates and reduce the spread of COVID-19, but was shelved due to timeline and funding concerns. Commissioners and jail staff initiually discussed using COVID-19 aid funding to pay for the facility, but eventually decided against it.
They did however vote to allow county staff to spend $50,000 of county funds to hire a firm to research the feasibility of the structures.
The proposal also saw pushback from law and justice advocates who accused the county of trying to get around criminal justice reform by adding a new jail with more beds through a proposal under another name.
Kurtis Robinson is the executive director of the justice advocacy group Revive I Did the Time, and a member of the Smart Justice Coalition. He says the county should focus on the root of the problem causing the growing jail population instead of adding new jail beds.
“There’s no doubt that these are structures with a lot of inherent challenges with them, essentially because of age,” Robinson said. “But what we must go right back to is why are we looking at investing in more incarceration facilities instead of investing in community.”
He says incarceration disproportionately affects people of color and leaders should be looking for upstream solutions to reduce the need for jails.
County Commissioner Josh Kerns says he's open to the temporary jail proposal and said the county budget officer was looking into the cost.
“As far as the usefulness and the utility of these structures, I think it is something we can probably make work. At this point it needs to come down to the actual dollars and cents of how would we pay for a structure like this.”
Kerns said once the commissioners have their finance questions about temporary jails answered, he’s hoping they decide how to proceed by the end of the year.
There’s also the question about the condition of the downtown jail and whether it needs to be replaced. Kerns said the county is unlikely to push for a ballot measure this year, or next year either, saying the economy needs time to recover.
Copies of the full jail proposal can be found here.