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Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at the state's plan for a new prison near Junction City, and the many older and mentally ill inmates who would be incarcerated there.

When Lane County's first state prison opens for business, it's likely to do what previously built lockups have done: equip Oregon's prison-industrial complex to keep pace with Oregonians' seemingly endless demand to put more criminals behind bars.

But corrections officials have bigger plans than that for their 240-acre parcel 2' miles south of the Junction City limits.

By 2014, they hope to complete Oregon's first prison built specially for its most challenging and fastest-growing inmate populations: the old and physically impaired, and the mentally ill. More than half of the prison's 1,262 medium-security inmates would present the kinds of challenges that have made it difficult to fit them into conventional prisons.

"We've been building a lot of round-hole prisons over the past 15 years, but we actually have a lot of square-peg inmates," said Oregon Department of Corrections Director Max Williams. "What Junction City is going to allow me to do is build some square-peg beds to manage these square-peg inmates."

If the Legislature approves the borrowing of $350 million or more for prison construction in Junction City, the Department of Corrections will embark on what it's calling Phase 1. That would be Williams' round-peg prison for round-peg inmates: a 532-bed minimum-security lockup. It would provide capacity enough to confine nearly one-third of the 1,700 additional nonviolent property and drug offenders expected to be sentenced by 2012, the same year the lower-security prison would open. The prison population spike is being driven by Measure 57, the sentencing law approved by voters last November.

Phase 2 at Junction City's prison complex would be more complicated.

It would house up to 174 geriatric and otherwise physically ailing inmates in units without bunk beds and in ground-floor cells. It's being planned with indoor corridors, rather than outside walkways, linking frail inmates' cells to their dining area. An infirmary would allow up to 40 inmates to receive medical treatment on-site. For those who need hospitalization, it's a place where they can return right away to recuperate in prison. And if recovery is not an option, up to six dying inmates could receive hospice care.

For those mentally ill inmates housed at the Junction City lockup, its location - a short drive away from Eugene, Springfield and Corvallis - will be as important as its design, Williams said.

The importance of building a lockup in a place as populous as Southern Willamette Valley is underscored, Williams said, by the challenges with staffing at the Snake River Correctional Institution near Ontario. That prison has 174 beds for mentally ill inmates. But getting psychiatrists to move to the isolated Oregon-Idaho border town has been difficult.

"My problem at Snake River is I can't hire the mental health professionals that I need to handle those people over there," Williams said.

Benefits of co-location

Another key geographic feature of the Junction City prison is the proposed construction of a state psychiatric hospital on the same property. State budget analysts say their co-location will allow the state to save about $31 million through shared infrastructure and site preparation undertakings.

State corrections and human services administrators also are discussing ways to jointly recruit and employ mental health professionals who could oversee treatment of both prison inmates and hospital patients, Williams said.

"If we go our own way on these high-level mental health professional types, we'll be competing against each other if we're both out looking for psychiatrists and psychologists and people with master's degrees in mental health," Williams said.

The number and skills of employees proposed for the Junction City prison complex will exceed those at other state lockups, given the demands of housing inmates who require specialized medical and mental care, ranging from the attention of nurses to the distribution of psychotropic drugs.

Construction costs also will be higher for the medium-security prison at Junction City: $170,000 on a per-bed basis. For a standard medium-security prison, the cost is around $125,000 per bed.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Elizabeth Craig attributed the Junction City prison's higher costs to the specialized housing units for inmates with mental and medical health needs, along with the addition of areas in the prison where group therapy and other forms of treatment would be conducted.

The variety of treatment, housing and confinement units being considered for the Junction City prison reflects the spectrum of mental illness among the inmates who would be housed there, said Jana Alayne Russell, administrator of the Behavioral Health Services Division at the Department of Corrections.

To deal with crisis-level inmates who are at risk of harming themselves or others, a mental health infirmary would house up to 106 inmates, including 10 who are considered suicide risks.

Two 40-bed "day treatment" units would house those inmates whose mental illnesses are well enough controlled that their treatment needs and monitoring requirements are one step down from those in the infirmary.

Two similar-sized units would confine and provide treatment for inmates who are both mentally ill and addicted to drugs and alcohol.

In addition, the Junction City prison would be the first in the state to segregate dangerous or disruptive inmates in solitary-confinement cells on a "behavioral management unit." Unlike the so-called management units at other prisons, where general-population inmates are sent for disciplinary and safety reasons, this would specialize in confining inmates experiencing episodes of severe mental illness, Russell said.

"These are head-bangers, feces-smearers, cell-flooders, self-mutilators, screamers," she said.

Such inmates would be overseen by corrections workers trained in the use of behavioral management techniques. Such prisoners would be released from their solitary-confinement cells intermittently for group therapy and other types of treatment.

Benefits to state economy

The prison complex, with construction slated to begin this summer, would cost $350 million or more to build. Construction on the psychiatric hospital is slated to be completed in 2013 with a price tag of $186 million.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski in December asked the Legislature to approve the sale of "certificates of participation," which are comparable to bonds, to pay for the construction of both facilities.

Since then, Oregon's projected revenue shortfall for 2009-11 has doubled to $2 billion. But Kulongoski has not backed away from his request, and top lawmakers appear ready to go along.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Portland, said the projects are badly needed for the state to fulfill its responsibilities to lock up prisoners and provide mental health services to those who need them in institutional settings. "It's my goal that those stay on course. It's not up in the air for Peter Courtney," he said.

Another factor - one that has been elevated in importance as Oregon's unemployment has risen to a 23-year high of 9 percent - is the economic impact the institutions will deliver.

For the next six years, as various phases of the facilities are being built, thousands of construction jobs will be created south of Junction City.

Eventually, city leaders hope, the extension of water and sewer lines south of town will allow for the development of industrial land near the prison and hospital site.

And as construction jobs leave, new jobs will be arrive - those of corrections officers, psychiatrists, therapists and others needed to run the prison complex and psychiatric hospital.

Funds to operate

The 360-patient hospital's projected 1,300 employees will bring in an estimated $90 million in annual pay and benefits.

Once the minimum- and medium-security prisons in the same correctional facility are open, between 500 and 650 workers will draw an estimated $27 million in wages and benefits.

The Corrections Department has yet to plan for staffing, beyond what they estimate to be the overall number of employees and payroll costs, said spokeswoman Craig. But because of the high concentration of special-needs inmates, it will employ more people with health care backgrounds than at more conventional prisons. Jobs there would include correctional corporals with annual pay between $37,632 and $53,880, food service supervisors with salaries between $35,712 and $46,932, health service technicians who make from $32,724 to $44,976, and clinical psychologists who earn from $49,068 to $71,820.

The Legislature already has made preliminary commitments to the two institutions. In 2007, it appropriated $10.6 million for the planning and design of the Junction City prison and $89 million for the first phase of building two psychiatric hospitals, the one in Junction City and the other in Salem.

But if Oregon's revenues continue to diminish as unemployment rises, then some lawmakers could reconsider.

Sen. Joanne Verger, a member of the budget-writing Joint Ways & Means Committee, said she can't make promises about the Junction City projects so early in a session facing such a dire fiscal outlook.

In many ways, the Coos Bay Democrat said, it makes good sense to borrow on the bond market to finance construction that would begin this year. After all, that brings in jobs now with little up-front cost, since the debt would be repaid over time.

But once the prison complex and psychiatric hospital are completed, lawmakers must commit to the pay-as-you-go obligation of operating them. That's the part that could prevent lawmakers from sleeping well, depending on how long Oregon's economy and tax revenues falter.

"My worst nightmare," Verger said, "is that we decide this is a good thing and we need it, but when we build it, we can't afford to staff it."

SUNDAY: Prison is response to increase in older, mentally ill inmates

TODAY: Recession not expected to derail prison or adjoining mental hospital


To see many of the reports and documents cited in this series, go to
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Title Annotation:Government State; Despite Oregon's economic woes, corrections officials plan two phases for the lockup designed to serve complex needs
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 9, 2009
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Next Article:Lawmaker seeks new use for psychiatric hospital.

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