Sheriff Brad Thurman on the Cowlitz County Jail

Fact vs. Fiction-sound bites and simplistic rhetoric vs. the reality of the situation

BACKGROUND

  • The Cowlitz County Corrections Department was established in 1991 by the Board of County Commissioners.

  • At this time (1991), the administration of the Jail was removed from the Sheriff and placed under the control of the County Commissioners.

  • An Executive Director of Corrections, who reports directly to the Board of Commissioners, is responsible for day-to-day operations at the Jail.

  • Running a Corrections Facility is a complex and litigious enterprise associated with a great deal of civil liability. Jails and prisons are subject to frequent oversight and regulation by Local, State and Federal authorities.

  • Contrary to what some have stated in social media, the Jail run by a “private entity”.The Jail is run by elected officials, and the corrections officers are State certified to discharge their duties.

THE NUMBERS

  • The maximum “bed capacity” of the Jail is 354.

  • The pre-covid average population of the Jail was approximately 265 inmates, a recent population count at the Jail was 217 inmates.

  • Due to the pandemic, State and Local courts have substantially reduced the number of cases they have processed.This has created a substantial backlog of pending cases.Case loads are roughly twice of what they were pre-pandemic.Prisoners are housed based upon a classification system.Recently, 45% of the inmates were classified at the medium to maximum security levels.84% of the inmates recently housed were being held on felony charges, this includes 12 inmates who have either been convicted of or are being charged with murder.

  • A recent count showed 58% percent of the inmates being housed were dealing with significant behavioral health issues.

  • The release and sentencing of offenders are handled by the Court system (Judges).Since June of 2022 1288 offenders have been booked into Jail and 1277 offenders have been released.

  • The Jail operational capacity is also limited due to staffing. The Jail currently has 7 open positions for corrections officers and several others who are currently in training.

FACTORS

  • In a perfect world, the Jail would have the capacity to accept any and all offenders, but this is simply not reality. When an inmate is booked into Jail, a screening process is followed for the purpose of housing/risk classification. Based upon this best practice/classification process, inmates often need to be housed away from the general population-which results in them being placed by themselves or with a smaller group of inmates.  This process is necessary, but drastically limits housing options and capacity.

  • The risk classification factors include, but are not limited to; history of violence, sex offender status, health/disease issues, drug withdrawal, mental health issues and “keep separates”-inmates that have a history of assaulting and victimizing others.

  • The City Police Chiefs and I meet regularly with the Executive Director of Corrections to discuss issues & problem solving for the Jail.These conversations have resulted in reduced booking restrictions over the last several months.

  • The Cowlitz County Jail booking restrictions are less restrictive than many of the Counties in the state.

CONCLUSION

  • Operating a correctional facility is a complex and specialized undertaking.

  • While there are notable frustrations with the Corrections Department and Criminal Justice system, there needs to be thoughtful consideration before making any rash and reactionary decision(s) about the Jail that may further compound current issues (or result in future unforeseen circumstances).

  • Politicizing the Jail discussion and advocating for an unsafe inmate capacity is unwise.Increasing capacity beyond a safe level will increase the risk of harm to staff, inmates and subject the County to increased financial liability (lawsuits).

  • I am not opposed to taking over the Jail; however, any change in management needs to be conducted only after a thorough risk versus reward assessment, and include how any potential change may adversely impact the tax paying public.

 

Here is a link to an article about Clark County transitioning to a corrections model like Cowlitz County

https://www.opb.org/pf/article/2022/09/15/clark-county-sheriff-says-county-council-seeks-to-take-over-running-of-jail/