It was an innocent enough request.
Kyle Stoddard, a Stafford Creek Corrections Center inmate housed at the Grays Harbor County Jail charged with assaulting a corrections officer, asked Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Deputy Jacob Stein for some toilet paper he had left in the day room.
“Stein tossed him the roll of toilet paper — at the same time he caught that, he basically began assaulting the officer,” Sheriff Rick Scott said.
“Stein was able to push the inmate away from him and was trying to gain some physical control of him, but wasn’t able to do so. But he was able to separate from him and get out the door and radio for help,” Scott added.
Luckily help arrived fairly quickly, though Stein still suffered a broken jaw in the assault. Things could have been much worse in the maze-like jail, often with only three corrections deputies to manage 160 inmates.
Scott said the recommended inmate to staff ratio when interacting with inmates is three to one.
“Four to one is considered to be concerning, and we’ve had ours as high as 6.9 to one,” he said.
Scott said the inmates who witnessed the attack described it as “completely unprovoked.”
“It was an ambush assault on the officer and many of them were very forthcoming in saying this was totally unprovoked, the officer did nothing to warrant the attack and this was obviously premeditated in their eyes,” Scott said. “Apparently he’d been bragging to them about his criminal history about how he’d assaulted officers in every facility he’d ever been in.”
Trying to prevent such attacks in a facility with numerous blind spots, narrow hallways and out-of-date equipment is a constant challenge.
“That’s why it’s so important, and that’s why I’m working with the Prosecutor’s Office and the judges collectively to try to come up with ways we can keep this population down to a point that’s reasonable,” Scott said.
Scott and other law enforcement leaders are working toward a more long-term solution: A criminal justice complex, including new jail. That’s likely years away.
In the meantime, agencies have been working to move offenders through the system more quickly, housing some with the Department of Corrections where possible and releasing many offenders before trial when they would typically be held.
That still leaves a very full facility where virtually all the inmates are being held for violent offenses, or suffer from significant mental illness which require heavy supervision and resources.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” Scott said. “Historically we’ve always tried to identify individual cases and try to move those people through the system, maybe because it’s a mental health condition or some other issue … but this is one of the first times in a number of years we just have so many people and the system just seems to have slowed to a near stop.”
“We’re bursting at the seams here and it’s just a matter of time until something blows.”
Even a layperson can see many of the problems with the old building. Each of the jail’s four floors is like an unrelated maze, many hallways half filled with boxes of food and supplies with no other place to store them. Corrections deputies are often a long, winding path away from help.
The glass on the doors has been welded on to the frame after an inmate managed to pry a pane loose last year. Luckily that didn’t turn tragic — corrections deputies found him showering in a day room.
Holes dot the ceiling from water damage, which worsens every winter. One unit can’t be used at all during the rainy seasons because the leaks are so severe. The “outdoor” recreation area — a large, bare concrete room — is similarly unavailable because of regular flooding.
That only adds to the tension inside the jail. There is no space and no staff for any organized activity, so much of the day for many inmates is spent in their cells, where the favorite activity seems to be slamming the doors around until the locks break, Scott said.
“We have inmates begging judges to send them to prison,” Undersheriff Dave Pimentel said. There, the inmates know, they’ll at least have something to do and some time outside.
“I’m scared to death of an officer getting hurt,” County Commissioner Frank Gordon said. “This isn’t like Rick wants a better jail or a fancy office.”
Between the age of the building, the oldest actively used parts built in the 1970s, and the activities of its occupants, repairs keep county maintenance workers running ragged.
“You’re looking at 30 to 40 years of age, and the other fact is our clientele has nothing better to do than to sit around and think of ways to break things in there,” said Kevin Varness, director of the county Utilities and Development Division. “There’s a lot of vandalism beyond wear and tear.”
Superior Court Judge David Edwards said the judges are granting pre-trial release to many non-violent offenders who wouldn’t otherwise be considered, like those facing drug charges.
“History has shown, if they are released, they simply don’t show up when they are supposed to, but because of overcrowding over there, the sheriff is saying, ‘If you think it is safe to release these people, if they don’t show up for trial, we’ll go out and bring them back in,’ ” Edwards said.
“The sheriff is in an awful situation over there,” he added. “The judges have an obligation to make sure we do what we can to protect the community from people who are involved in criminal activities, so it’s a balancing act.”
Some of the inmates have been shifted to the Department of Corrections, two of the more violent offenders costing $4,000 per month to house there. Scott said the department can sometimes avoid the cost by offering bed space for DOC offenders, but there simply isn’t room now.
“There’s not an easy fix to it. It’s hard to hold down the jail population on the one hand and protect the community at the same time,” Edwards said. “There are some people who just need to be locked up, there’s just no way around it.”
“These are Band-Aid solutions,” Scott said. “The long-term solution to this is to hopefully find a funding stream that’s going to allow for us to improve on the jail facility itself.”
The idea for a criminal justice complex at the county offices has been floating around for years, but over the past year or so, the concept has begun to coalesce. The complex might include a larger, more modern jail which would require less staff to operate, moving the juvenile detention facility out of the tsunami danger zone in Junction City, moving the second District Court room out of Aberdeen, adding a long-sought third Superior Court room and more storage for the Sheriff’s Office.
An architectural firm has been hired for basic design work and to establish how much a complex would cost, and report is expected by the end of the summer.
“We have to come up with a plan that makes financial sense, and then finding a way to fund the project will be the next challenge,” Edwards said. “We’ve had some preliminary discussions in terms of what our financing options would be, but we certainly haven’t made any decisions.”
Funding might come from a sales tax devoted to law enforcement, a bond measure, grants, loans or some combination thereof. Voters will likely be asked to weigh in on the issue within the next few years, possibly even as early as November if design work and public outreach is completed.
“What happened with the assault on the deputy last week was completely unacceptable, but that didn’t change what we were already doing,” Edwards said. “It’s certainly another piece of evidence, so to speak, when we have to go to the voters and explain how critical the need is over there.”