Agreement will be in effect for up to one more year
The Okanogan County jail will no longer house inmates from Douglas County. The Okanogan County commissioners cancelled their contract last week because the arrangement reduces the county’s ability to provide adequate services to Okanogan County, the commissioners told their Douglas County counterparts in a Feb. 15 letter.
“Pandemic mitigation requirements combined with a significant staffing crisis as well as the lack of isolation capability in such a dated facility are significant factors in our coming to this conclusion,” the Okanogan commissioners wrote.
The contract with Douglas County allowed either party to terminate it with one year’s notice. The contract will remain in effect for up to a year to allow Douglas County to find alternate arrangements.
For several months, commissioners from both counties have been reviewing the terms of the contract, which provides 40 beds daily to Douglas County, which doesn’t have its own jail.
After scrutinizing the condition of the jail and its needs, the Okanogan County commissioners determined that the “aging and inadequate facility” cannot effectively and safely house all those inmates, particularly with booking restrictions imposed during the COVID pandemic, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said in a Feb. 17 press release. Current staffing shortages exacerbate the problem, he said.
The health and safety of Okanogan County residents come first, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover told the Methow Valley News.
The Douglas County commissioners thoroughly understand the challenges faced by the Okanogan County commissioners and jail administrator, Douglas County board chair Marc Straub told the Methow Valley News. The challenges come not only from the pandemic, but also from issues in recruiting and retaining staff being felt by the public and private sectors, Straub said.
Coordinating the needs of the two counties had become untenable, Hover said. The contract required Okanogan County to transport inmates to and from the Chelan County Regional Justice Center, which holds Douglas County inmates temporarily, but there was no set schedule because it depended on when people were arrested, Hover said. That made it hard to coordinate responsibilities of Okanogan County employees.
Okanogan County also provides court services for the Douglas County inmates. That became more burdensome during COVID, because attorneys and officers were no longer coming up from Douglas County. As a result, Okanogan County had to provide its own personnel during video court hearings, and there were sometimes scheduling conflicts for the courtroom, Hover said.
“There are no ill feelings against Douglas County. It’s simply that, operationally, we couldn’t perform the necessary duties for our county and keep that contract going,” Hover said.
The jail was built in 1984 to accommodate 67 inmates and has been expanded several times since, so that it now has a capacity of 193. While parts of the facility have been upgraded to accommodate the larger population, some sections and functions are inadequate, according to Hawley’s press release. “Crucial security and operational capabilities have been maintained but the design of the building has not allowed key infrastructure, such as kitchen and laundry facilities, to expand with the increase in population,” he wrote.
While terminating the agreement will mean a loss of revenue to the county, the operational concerns and safety factors “could not be overlooked any longer,” according to the press release.
The agreement with Douglas County has been in place since 2013. Under the current contract, Douglas County paid for all 40 beds regardless of whether they used them. The commissioners amended the contract last week so that Douglas County will pay for only the beds they use for the duration of the contract.
Among the concerns raised by the Douglas County commissioners was not being able to rely on jail space for their needs.
The jail imposed booking restrictions starting in March 2020 to protect inmates and staff during the pandemic. These restrictions have allowed the staff to quarantine all new inmates for 14 days and to isolate symptomatic inmates. But the design of the building means that corrections officers have to use spaces normally allocated to the highest-security inmates or those requiring dedicated staff supervision for public health needs, Hawley said.
There is no strict cap on the number of inmates, because the jail has to coordinate many factors to safely house all inmates, including gender, classification and seriousness of the crime, Hawley told the Methow Valley News.
“Our staff has done an amazing job in mitigating the risks of exposure. With our corrections center not being constructed with this in mind, they have continued to problem-solve in order to keep the staff and inmates as healthy as possible, as well as continue the operations of the corrections center for those public safety and mandatory arrests,” Hawley said.
The annual average for beds occupied by Douglas County inmates has ranged from 30.41 in 2017 to 41.83 in 2018, according to figures provided by Hawley.
In the past two years, although Douglas County used an average of 35 beds, they sometimes needed more, Straub said. That meant that people who should have been in jail didn’t always end up in jail. Some had electronic home monitoring, but some didn’t go to jail because there was no other option. Not being able to find a suitable arrangement was a bigger concern than the cost to the county, Straub said.
The jail census changes daily. In early February, there were 85 people in custody, 58 from Okanogan County, 26 from Douglas County, and one through a contract arrangement with another jurisdiction, Hawley said.
The per-bed rate is adjusted according to the consumer-price index. The rate had been $61.22, which brought in almost $900,000 annually for Okanogan County. It will be $62.17 for the duration of the agreement, according to the commissioners’ letter.
Douglas County has been in discussions with Chelan County about providing their needs for jail space, Straub said.
But the issue underscores the importance of taking a longer look at needs for a regional jail in the future, Straub said. Straub said he’d like to start that conversation with his counterparts in Okanogan and Chelan counties, which both have aging facilities.