News

State's sex offender facility changing and moving

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Almost 200 civilly committed sex offenders are preparing to move from inside the walls of the medium-security state prison on McNeil Island to the recently finished, $60 million Special Commitment Center two miles away.

They will begin moving in phases in late April, state officials said.

The move will come on the heels of Special Commitment Center superintendent Mark Seling’s announcement he’s leaving to take a job as the clinical inpatient services director for Pierce County’s Puget Sound Hospital mental health program. His resignation takes effect April 9.

Beverly Wilson, the center’s associate superintendent for community programs, will fill in as acting superintendent while the Department of Social and Health Services searches for a permanent replacement.

The new center on McNeil Island is a total confinement facility with high, medium and low-security housing for sex offenders who serve their prison sentences, but whom the courts order into ongoing mental health treatment because they present enough of a risk to reoffend.

Across the street from the new complex is a secure community transitional facility (SCTF) where residents can be transferred if they become eligible through sex offender treatment. Though less restrictive, the facility is surrounded by a fence, has security cameras inside and outside and has 24-hour staffing to monitor the residents.

Of the commitment center’s 191 male residents, four have become eligible for transfer to the SCTF, though one recently was returned to the commitment center for violating the conditions of his release.

The cost to run the new center is expected to increase from the $107,000 a year within the prison walls to $126,000 a year, when the commitment center assumes responsibility for security, food service and maintenance formerly provided by the prison under contract.

Meanwhile, DSHS is still preparing to renovate a south Seattle warehouse into an SCTF for civilly committed sex offenders who become eligible for less-restrictive housing.

The facility was once proposed for the Peasley Canyon area near Federal Way until public and political pressure shifted the state’s attention elsewhere.

Spokesman Steve Williams said DSHS plans to go to bid for contractors in June, and occupancy is scheduled for March 2005. The facility is being designed to accommodate six men, with the potential to expand to 12.

Williams said DSHS officials don’t know how many, if any, residents on McNeil Island will be ready to move when the Seattle facility is ready for occupancy.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” he said. “We don’t know who will be eligible at the time. In the end, the courts may have a say in this.”

The city of Seattle and DSHS in February settled a lawsuit filed by the city after DSHS agreed to mitigations, including the formation of a community input board and state funding for a Seattle Police officer to prepare for the opening of the facility.

DSHS built the new special commitment center on McNeil Island because “we needed more room and we couldn’t expand any more in the prison,” Williams said. “It was just prudent to get out of there.”

But the secure community transition facilities are being built following a class-action lawsuit filed by several sex offenders who argued that confining them indefinitely within the prison walls violated their constitutional rights.

A federal judge ordered DSHS to create less-restrictive alternative housing for sex offenders.

DSHS began building secure transitional housing on McNeil, near the new commitment center, but the courts ruled that on-island housing was still too restrictive. The court began fining DSHS for every day it was out of compliance with the order to provide the housing for the civilly committed residents.

That cumulative fine has now reached $10 million, Williams said, though DSHS officials hope it will be waived once the south Seattle facility is up and running.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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