DOC delays prison opening

Minimum-security prison will fill faster

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - The 1,223 beds at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution's medium-security will remain empty for now, the Department of Corrections announced this week. Instead, the DOC will concentrate on filling the 644 beds of the minimum-security portion of the prison.

   Less than a month after the dedication of the new medium-security portion of the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, the Department of Corrections has announced that it will not open as planned.
   The indefinitely delayed opening of the 1,223-bed facility is based on the most recent statewide prison population forecast, according to Parrish Van Wert, community development coordinator for the DRCI.
   At the time of the dedication on Nov. 30, the facility was expected to begin receiving inmates in February of 2008.
   Instead, the department has ramped up its schedule for filling the 644 beds of the minimum-security portion of the facility, which received its first inmates in September.
   "The director and his office of population management took a look at the highest need and the direction that the forecast was moving," said Van Wert. "The forecast was calling for the need for minimum-security beds ahead of medium."
   The new schedule for opening the prison will save money for the DOC, Director Max Williams commented. "The change in the inmate population forecast has presented itself in a way where we can open Deer Ridge in a more cost-effective and efficient manner," he said.
   The employees already hired by the institution will not be affected by the delayed opening, Superintendent Sharon Blacketter noted.
   "How DRCI comes online will not affect us operationally," she said. "Filling our minimum-security prison more quickly will mean that those hired to open the medium, will be reassigned positions in the minimum facility."
   The Department of Administrative Services Office of Economic Analysis calculates the prison population forecast and publishes the new numbers every six months.
   In the October forecast, the projected inmate population over the current biennium was down 299 inmates from the April report.
   "It really is a cost saving to the taxpayer," said Van Wert. "A phased-in start-up versus coming online as anticipated is less expensive. You've got about 100 less employees."
   However, the DRCI will eventually hire the additional employees, he said.
   Currently, the DRCI has 210 employees. Of that number, 44 percent live in Madras, and 59 percent in Jefferson County. "Out of the 24 managers, 67 percent live in Madras, and 71 percent live in Jefferson County," he added.
   "Those are pretty significant statistics," Van Wert continued. "It was always our hope that the people who work here would want to live here. We've been successful at showing these folks there's good reason to want to live in Madras and Jefferson County."
   The delay was met with approval at the Madras City Hall.
   "I honestly think, `thank you for slowing down a little bit,'" said City Administrator Mike Morgan. "There's nothing negative in this."
   "We need a chance to absorb the houses that we've got out there and get the new businesses built," he said. "An important part of the business infrastructure needs to be in place in order to maximize the number of people who will call Madras home."