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Oak Harbor jail beds may be for rent

Prisoners in the Oak Harbor jail stand behind bars. The facility may become more crowded as the city of Oak Harbor is considering contracts with neighboring municipalities to house their inmates in the facility.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Prisoners in the Oak Harbor jail stand behind bars. The facility may become more crowded as the city of Oak Harbor is considering contracts with neighboring municipalities to house their inmates in the facility.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

The city of Oak Harbor may soon be in the business of importing prisoners from off island.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace brought a contract before the City Council Tuesday that, if approved, would allow the Oak Harbor jail to begin receiving inmates from Anacortes on a daily basis.

The contract with the city of Anacortes proposes to house inmates at a cost of $65 per day. Despite some good-natured grumbling from City Council member Bob Severns, who joked that the price should be higher as Anacortes is raising the rate it charges Oak Harbor for its water, no council members had a problem with the contract.

The move is in response to a review City Prosecutor Bill Hawkins and Lt. Tim Sterkel of the Oak Harbor Police Department conducted earlier this year. It concluded that the jail could be run more efficiently if it was fuller, as the 12-bed facility is usually occupied with just six or seven prisoners.

“They are quite expensive to run,” Wallace said.

The Oak Harbor jail is split into two cell blocks, four beds in one cell for women and eight beds in three cells for men. It has an annual budget of about $600,000. That includes the wages and benefits of the seven jail officers that work in the facility.

It comes down to dollars and cents, Wallace said. Making a meal for six inmates costs about the same as it does to prepare a meal for 10. Plus, the $65-per-day prisoner fee will be a revenue generator for the city, although it will not be much.

“We’re not going to break even or pay for our jail expenses,” Wallace said.

He declined to speculate on how much the deal may generate per year due to the fluctuation of inmate numbers. However, if the jail were to receive an additional four inmates per day at $65 each, that would generate $94,900 annually.

According to Capt. John Small of the Anacortes Police Department, while they may transfer as many as four inmates on any given day, no inmates may be transferred on another. He also could not say what kind of revenue Oak Harbor could expect, but that it would much less than $94,900 a year.

“That’s almost as much as our entire jail budget,” he said.

Anacortes sends the majority of its inmates to the Skagit County jail in Mount Vernon. The facility has 183 beds but suffers constantly from overcrowding. The average inmate count is between 200 and 250 prisoners. Overcrowding is a problem in facilities across the state, he said.

Wallace is aware of the problem and is also considering inmate transfer contracts with San Juan County and the Washington Department of Corrections. He didn’t have details about those contacts, such as average prisoner intake, but he said the Oak Harbor facility could house up to 15 prisoners, despite having just 12 beds.

Although Wallace acknowledged that the additional inmates would “add stress” to both prisoners and guards, he said his staff has the proper training and he is confident they can handle the load.

The contract with Anacortes will not receive final approval until it is signed by Mayor Jim Slowik, who was on vacation Tuesday evening. Wallace said he hopes it will be signed before the end of the month and that the jail can begin receiving the additional prisoners by the beginning of July.

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