Prison for the old and infirm may close

State may close Ahtanum View, prison for the old and infirm
Ahtanum View Corrections Center, the state’s prison for the elderly, disabled or critically ill, is being studied for potential closure. The governor’s Office of Financial Management is expected to release a report proposing corrections cuts in the coming days.

By Jennifer Sullivan


YAKIMA — Dennis Castano can rattle on about pinochle, his favorite Louis L’Amour paperbacks and his days working as a logger, but he can’t seem to remember why he’s in prison.

The 76-year-old child molester, his memory dimmed by a head injury, is among the 130 elderly, disabled or critically ill inmates who call Ahtanum View Corrections Center home. For 22 years, the tidy brick building surrounded by fruit orchards outside Yakima has housed inmates considered the most fragile and vulnerable in the state Department of Corrections (DOC) system.

Now Ahtanum View’s place within that system has become equally fragile.

The prison is on a list of facilities being studied for potential closure as the state weighs slashing Corrections’ costs. A report expected to be released in the coming days by the governor’s Office of Financial Management is expected to recommend closing one adult and one juvenile prison, a move that would result in massive job cuts and the transfer of hundreds of inmates to other facilities.

But employees and supporters of Ahtanum View say closing the facility would be shortsighted and hardly cost-effective.

Staff say that if the facility is shuttered, its most vulnerable inmates, men who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other long-term illnesses, will face serious problems if they’re transferred to other state prisons. The inmates at Ahtanum View are locked up for nearly every crime on the books — murder, rape, child molestation, drug possession, fleeing police. What makes the prison different is the age and physical condition of the inmates.

“Our mission statement is that we provide medical assistance, safety and security in a corrections environment,” said Ahtanum View Superintendent Jane Parnell. “It’s a humane way to treat people.”

Parnell said 100 of the 130 men at Ahtanum View are in need of intense medical care, including many who suffer from memory-impacting illnesses, paraplegia, heart conditions or blindness.

The average daily cost to house an inmate at other state prisons is $97.30, said agency spokeswoman Belinda Stewart. The daily cost to house an inmate at Ahtanum View is $163.88, making it the most expensive prison in the state, Parnell said.

But because of the medical care required by most Ahtanum View inmates, Parnell said, it would be more expensive to house the sickest of the inmates elsewhere because they would have to live in infirmaries, which have an even higher number of medical staff; or in an intensive-management unit; or in high-security solitary confinement.

“The higher the security level, the more expensive it is,” Parnell said. “You have to have more officers per the number of inmates.”

Parnell believes even those Ahtanum View inmates who aren’t as infirm would still represent a major challenge if placed in other state prisons, because they would be a prime target for threats or even violence from younger inmates.

“It takes some skill to survive in a prison,” Parnell said. “If you don’t have all of your faculties you could be a victim.”

The DOC hasn’t said what would happen to Ahtanum View inmates if the prison was shuttered. It’s possible some terminally or chronically ill inmates could be released early, but under state law no sex offenders nor anyone convicted of a violent felony would be considered for early release.

In recent months, consultants working on the Office of Financial Management report have visited Ahtanum View, as well as the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, the Monroe Correctional Complex, McNeil Island Corrections Center and Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women to see where cuts can be made. If lawmakers and the governor decide to close a facility, its inmates would be sent to another prison, said DOC Secretary Eldon Vail.

State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, is concerned about the economic impact closure of Ahtanum View would have on the Yakima Valley. He said dollar figures on how the area would be affected would likely be announced after the report is released.

“It would have a large impact on the vitality of this valley. The other impact it would have is in regards to the hospitals and those medical facilities this institution uses,” said King, who toured Ahtanum View on Thursday to gain a better understanding of the facility. “We have to make some cuts somewhere, but we need to make the cuts where we protect the elderly and most vulnerable people in our society.”

The closure of Ahtanum View would mean the loss of 86 corrections officers and prison staff jobs, said Ton Johnson, a lobbyist for the Washington Federation of State Employees, the union that represents community corrections officers.

Parnell said officers with seniority could transfer to other facilities. The closest prisons to Ahtanum View are Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Franklin County, about 120 miles to the east; and the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, about 130 miles to the southeast.

With prison populations increasing because of Three Strikes, You’re Out sentencing laws and other tough-on-crime legislation, Johnson believes the state would eventually have to build another prison specifically for aged and infirm inmates.

“We pride ourselves in being a humane system for offenders,” said Johnson, who is also a community corrections, or probation, officer. “I think we should be concerned about their quality of life and their right to die with dignity.”

Lt. Steve Hansson, who has been at Ahtanum View since it opened, equates the minimum-custody facility to a nursing home. Inmates, most of whom are over 60, generally dress in the requisite corrections uniform — khaki trousers and white T-shirts — but have freedom and individualized care not found at other prisons.

At Ahtanum View there’s no voice over the loudspeaker directing inmates to their daily activities. Inmates live in dorms. They can head into the fenced yard anytime during the day, or spend all day in the TV room, building jigsaw puzzles, gossiping with cronies or playing cards. The most healthy inmates are tasked with pushing other inmates’ wheelchairs and making sure other aging inmates get to the cafeteria for meals, Parnell said.

Nurses are on site 24 hours a day, checking in hourly — or even more frequently — with inmates.

“It’s designed for offenders who are labor-intensive and hard to manage in major facilities,” Hansson said. “They can get better one-on-one medical care [at Ahtanum View] than they can in other facilities.”

Castano, who has convictions for child molestation and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes, divides his time among the TV room, playing cards, reading western novels and checking in with nurses on staff. Castano and his “cellie,” Fred Arnett, 51, live in a medium-needs unit, where a nurse checks in hourly.

In the special-needs area, certified nursing assistant Debbie Wood spends her days helping inmates bathe and eat. A staffed pill window is open just steps from the men’s narrow beds.

Fred Aylward, 67, of Bremerton, said he came to the special-needs unit for long-term care from the infirmary at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, where he was recovering after having open-heart surgery. Aylward has been convicted of rape, kidnapping and child molestation.

“It’s a relaxed environment,” he said of Ahtanum View. “I can understand the lack of funds [at the state], but this facility is pretty well needed.”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.