Jail sees budget decline

Entrance to the adult section of the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR) in The Dalles.

The Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities in fiscal year 2013-14 are expected to be down, which means there will be no increase in the share of costs paid by the four owner counties.

The $9.9 million budget for the upcoming year has dropped from $10.2 million in 2012-13 due largely to the resolution of eight past lawsuits and a decline in worker compensation claims.

“We’ve been trying very hard to control some of our losses and get problems from the past resolved and this is the payoff,” said Jim Weed, executive director.

On Thursday, June 20, the NORCOR board of directors is expected to adopt the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1. The body of representatives from Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam counties convenes in the conference room of the juvenile facility at 211 Webber Street.

Weed, the former Okanogan County Sheriff in Washington State, was brought in four years ago to deal with an environment in the jail that had brought legal challenges from workers for claims of mistreatment and inmate accusations of abuse.

“I was on a first- name basis with legal counsel for the first year I was here,” he said. “It’s nice now because I can call pre-loss (insurance carriers) on issues and get advice.”

One of the most publicized complaints against NORCOR was a federal lawsuit filed by Chadwick Yancey, who asserted that his civil rights were violated when he became the victim of excessive force by guards in April 2009. He said after a corrections deputy shoved him into a wall, his jaw and three teeth were broken. He said the violence committed against him had been covered up by Wasco County authorities after his incarceration for a probation violation related to a medical marijuana abuse conviction.

Yancey planned to use jail surveillance video footage of the incident as evidence in the case. However, a U.S. District Court judge abruptly dismissed his trial in January due to “blatant disrespect for the process.” The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning that the issue cannot be brought back before the court, after Yancey yelled obscenities in the courtroom and refused to obey the judge’s directives about decorum.

Weed said policies and procedures have been established under his watch to safeguard the facility against future lawsuits. He said 50 more cameras have been installed in the adult side of the jail so movements of inmates and employees through hallways and in congregation areas can be more closely monitored.

“Everything that happens in an open area of NORCOR is basically on camera,” he said.

Weed said an inmate fund was used to purchase and set up televisions in common areas and that has provided guards with a way to reward good behavior or withhold privileges for bad conduct.

He said the 65 employees in both the adult and juvenile sections of the jail have also been given more training about how to deal with inmates, something that has become more difficult with an influx of mentally ill people who are incarcerated. He said many of these individuals need to go through a detoxification process for heroin, which seems to be today’s drug of choice.

“The jail has become a de facto mental health facility and we’re really not set up to easily deal with that,” said Weed.

He said overtime costs go up when someone with mental issues ends up behind bars because his or her erratic behavior necessitates close supervision and much higher sanitation costs.

The jail books 3,500 to 4,000 adults each year and Weed is constantly looking for ways to scale back costs. He said federal agencies pay about $150,000 per year to rent bed space, a figure that is down dramatically from several years ago and drives his search for efficiencies.

Although the jail was built to provide 150 beds, Weed said the number of inmates on the adult side is capped at 100 due to staffing cutbacks. There can also be up to 50 juveniles incarcerated or participating in a state-run rehabilitation program.

Despite a series of cutbacks in operational costs, he said corrections staff have received a 3 percent cost of living adjustment in their current three-year contract, which expires June 30. He said management has proposed a 1 percent raise for 2013-14 but is still in negotiations with the union representing deputies. Non-union workers – administrators and support staff – receive the same amount given to union employees.

Weed said at least an 11 percent increase in personnel insurance and benefits is expected in the upcoming year.

He said the political environment at the board level has also stabilized with a new funding formula that resulted from last year’s mediation process.

Hood River objected to paying for more beds than it was using on a daily basis, but Wasco objected to changing the original funding mechanism that had been agreed upon by all of the involved counties.

Paul Crowley, presiding judge for the Seventh Judicial District, stepped in to mediate that point of contention and a compromise funding plan was agreed upon. Hood River is now paying 30.2 percent of the counties’ share of the budget, with Wasco responsible for 58.6 percent, Sherman for 5.4 and Gilliam for 5.9.

The jail was built by a bond levy approved by each county of $13 million that will be paid off on Sept. 15, 2016. Weed has budgeted $2.4 million for debt service payments in the upcoming fiscal year.

“Things are going well at NORCOR, I think,” he said. “It’s not perfect yet and some of the employees think I’m too tight but it is what it is.”

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