OLYMPIA—Many of the roughly 9,000 inmates released from the state's prisons each year re-offend and get locked up again.
Though it's not a problem unique to Washington, the state's secretary of corrections says he plans to push for reforms designed to reduce the number of repeat offenders.
"We know how to lock people up, know how to incapacitate," said Harold Clarke. "But for me, the true measure of public protection is what the individual does after release. Because then the public becomes vulnerable."
Clarke's wish list includes revamping prison psychological assessments, education, job-training and treatment programs. "If we can help prop them up — prepare them — I think most of these folks will choose law-abiding lives," he said.
Leah Zengage, executive director of the Washington chapter of Justiceworks, a nonprofit advocacy group for prisoners and their families, said inmates are routinely released with a small check and bus ticket, the clothes on their backs and a cardboard box with their stuff from prison.
"So you don't have job skills, you don't have money. You're hungry. And at all the shelters, there's drugs," she said, suggesting that offenders are "set up to fail."
Each year, Washington spends about $27,000 per inmate to house its nearly 18,000 prisoners. That figure does not count the cost of prison construction.
The state is now spending $229 million for a 1,792-bed expansion to the prison complex at Connell in Eastern Washington. Prison officials predict the state will be nearly 1,000 beds short when the facility opens in 2009 and that the shortage will have grown to 2,000 beds within two years.
For now, Washington is shipping its excess prisoners to other states where it rents cells. Idaho, which has about 7,000 inmates but just 6,000 beds, is also shipping prisoners out of state.
A Washington state study earlier this year found that 42 percent of new prisoners had been locked up before. Clarke is betting he can push that number much lower but has no illusions that everyone can be reformed.
"We fully understand that no matter what we do, there are some offenders who are going to re-offend," he said.
In his first budget request since being appointed Washington's prisons chief in February 2005, Clarke is asking legislative budget writers for an additional $26 million over the next two years. The money would be used for intake evaluations, treatment and classes, among other efforts.
"Harold Clarke is actually a blessing," Zengage said. "He really does believe in supporting people's rehabilitation. That's critical."
Nora Callahan is executive director of The November Coalition, a group that's pressing for lighter sentences for drug offenders. Her brother is serving more than 20 years in federal prison.
"We've been focusing on just punishment," she said. "It's only when we see community involvement with prisons — they're not separate — that we'll see the results society expects and needs."
She's suggested tax breaks to encourage employers to hire and train work-release inmates, and says the state needs to separate and treat mentally ill inmates.
"How are you going to rehabilitate insane people?" she said. "We're using our prisons as drop-off places for mentally sick people. It's not working and it's wrong."
Clarke said the statistics from incoming prisoners provide a clear direction for reforms. Nearly three-quarters of male prisoners test below a ninth-grade education level. More than half have drug or alcohol problems. And 70 percent are unemployed.
After serving 20 years in prison for murder, Willie Robinson was paroled in 2003. He left Pine Lodge Pre-Release with a $100 check and some legal papers. He found work at a lumber mill and now builds custom cabinets.
He doubts reforms like those Clarke has proposed will do much to change things or that inmates will buy into any counseling and educational system offered by jailers.
"This is something that comes up every five to seven years on their part," he said of corrections officials. "Nothing's going to happen."
— The Associated Press