In 2005, Lewis County’s new jail dwarfed its much smaller predecessor, putting safely in the past the need for booking restrictions — basically a no-vacancy sign for suspects arrested on misdemeanor charges or warrants.
Almost 15 years later, the jail doesn’t feel so large anymore.
“(Booking restrictions) used to be the rule, then we built the new facility … now we’re hitting that point again,” said Chief Deputy Dusty Breen, who started his career at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office in the jail. “Now we’re starting to fill that capacity up. … Because of that, we’re hitting these restrictions off and on. We’ve gone off and on these restrictions several times over the last year.”
The Lewis County Jail has been on its most recent period of booking restrictions for about four weeks, due both to high average daily populations and to a need to keep some cells empty while the jail undergoes maintenance.
Right now, the jail’s average daily population is about 235, Jail Chief Chris Sweet said. This time last year, it was 210. Booking restrictions typically go into effect at 250 inmates and stay in place until the number gets back down to 210, he added.
“Definitely the trend is we have been teetering on the restrictive booking status population for quite some time this year,” he said. “The only option we have right now is asking for more (full time staff) so we can have more inmates come in our facility.”
The Sheriff’s Office plans to ask the Lewis County Board of Commissioners to approve two additional full time positions in the jail in the 2020 budget, Sweet said.
The restrictions don’t affect felony charges or domestic violence offenses. The jail has also been flexible about booking some suspects on lesser offenses on a case-by-case basis.
Centralia Police Chief Carl Nielsen praised the jail for working well with area law enforcement in a difficult situation.
“It can be frustrating for our officers particularly when we know there are people with warrants out there,” he said. “If there’s a need, a special case for any other reason, the jail’s been good about letting us get them in there.”
Sweet said Lewis County Judges have also been frustrated by the restrictions.
When the Lewis County Jail was new in 2005, the Sheriff’s Office estimated it could house 356 inmates. However, changes in regulations and standards for jails in the United States have changed, shrinking the jail’s capacity to closer to 300, jail Capt. Chris Tawes said.
“Three hundred would be even an issue,” he said. “The restrictive housing units are always full on a daily basis.”
Restrictive housing units are reserved for inmates booked on serious, often violent felony charges, those with serious medical or mental health issues or gang members.
Sweet said the Sheriff’s Office’s research has shown that there’s no universally recognized national standard for a safe inmate to deputy ratio in a jail — it’s all up to a specific organization to set its standards.
With an inmate population at 240, the Lewis County Jail has an inmate to deputy ratio of 80 to one, Sweet said.
“That’s a huge liability,” he said.
Increased populations stress other aspects of the jail’s operation as well, Sweet said.
“As inmate population increases, the medical attention increases, the mental health attention increases, food increases,” he said. “The only thing that doesn’t increase is our FTEs (full time equivalent staff).”
It’s unclear what’s driving the higher jail populations, but Sweet and Tawes said it’s the new normal, rather than a short-term problem.
“This is not just us, it’s everywhere. There’s an ongoing issue everywhere,” Tawes said.
In the long term, Sweet said the Sheriff’s Office hopes programs to keep people out of jail, including medication assisted treatment programs for drug addiction, Superior Court’s Mental Health Alternative and other programs will continue to grow.
“We’re trying to solve the problem as much as we can but now we have to ask for more FTEs,” Sweet said.