By Phil Manzano
of The Oregonian staff
The way Ontario Mayor Bob Switzer remembers it, years would go by during the heart of Oregon's recession in the 1980s before anyone applied for a building permit in his small Eastern Oregon town.
But now the hammers are falling, the walls are going up, and nearly 300 new residential lots are being developed in the town on the Oregon-Idaho border.
The difference has been the expansion of the Snake River Correctional Institution, previously a 648-bed prison. It's being transformed into a 3,000-bed megaprison.
Snake River's growing confines will bring jobs, families and dependable salaries to Ontario. And the rural farm town is also feeling growing pains in its school, housing and street systems.
The phenomenon - prison growth - is a scene that will be repeated in towns across the state as Oregon stands on the verge of its most ambitious prison-building enterprises.
Within nine years, prison officials hope to build 10 prisons on eight sites around the state to meet what is expected to be a steep increase in the number of inmates.
Oregon has 8,278 prisoners but by 2005 will be custodian of more than 19,000.
About 9,000 will be serving terms for violent crimes under Measure 11 - a voter-approved mandatory minimum sentencing
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PRISONS, Page A10
[Page One photo caption:]
From left: Inmates Christi Poe, 37, Trina Renfrow, 26, and Cricket Henry, 20, get a break from work tasks Wednesday at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland. A new prison building effort will concentrate on more beds for women prisoners.Prisons: Corrections Department fastest growing state unit
system for violent crimes.
The construction plan will have a ripple effect in regions of the state as the prisons draw construction workers to sites and then armies of corrections staff to run them once they're completed.
With tougher prison sentences, the Oregon Department of Corrections is emerging as the fastest-growing arm of state government.
Its $481 million, two-year budget occupies only 6 percent of the state's $8.2 billion budget.
But corrections spending will at least double in the next seven years as Oregon's prison population is projected to double to more than 16,000 by the year 2003.
"You're going to be approaching a billion eventually," John Lattimer, a state legislative fiscal officer, said.
It's highly unlikely that the other major slices of the state budget that dwarf corrections - education and human resources - will see that kind of growth.
Although the prison construction plan sounds impressive, the hidden costs for prisons are in their operating costs.
"It's a lot more than just talking about the $14 million to acquire the sites," said David White, an assistant director in the state Department of Administrative Services.
"How many corrections officers will you have to hire? How many meals will have to be served?" All those issues need to be accounted for, he said.
What is significant about prisons is that they require round-the-clock staffing.
It's expected to cost $175 million to convert the Snake River institution in Ontario to a 3,000-bed megaprison.
But the anticipated 1997-'99 operating budget is projected at about $97 million. And that figure is low because the prison won't be at full strength until mid-1998.
Snake River will employ more than 1,000 workers when it's finished.
"It's happening all over the country," Lattimer said, referring to the explosion of prison growth. "This is a national phenomenon."
Texas is the leader in prison construction, having completed a massive program to house nearly 155,000 inmates - the largest state prison population in the nation.
"I know of a community in Texas," said Darrell Bryan, editor of the prison trade industry newsletter, the Corrections Compendium. "Within a 50-mile radius, there are three maximum-security prisons and a federal prison.
"Some states view the corrections industry as a shot in the arm, while other communities see it as basically kind of a plague," he said.
Some states view the corrections industry as a shot in
the arm, while other communities see it as basically
kind of a plague.
-- Darrell Bryan, editor, Corrections Compendium
It's not uncommon for some communities to fear that prisons translate into more problems with crime, as the friends and family of inmates move in to be closer to inmates. Once inmates are released, the fear of crime increases as some relocate into the nearby communities, Bryan said.
Oregon law, however, requires that inmates be released in the county where they are convicted.
But other concerns include the possibilities of escapes or disturbances that could bring negative publicity to a town.
"Eventually, the reputation of the prison overshadows the town itself," Bryan said.
But at the same time, communities embrace prisons because they bring construction jobs and secure employment. That, in turn, draws commercial businesses such as restaurants, movie theaters or hotels.
"There are pros and cons," he said. "Your community will change."
Consider Sheridan, where the sprawling Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution was built in 1989 for 1,700 inmates.
"I don't think Sheridan is viewed as a prison city," Sheridan Mayor Bob Jordan said.
The prison brought a diversified group of families to the growing town of 4,400 that once depended on timber mills to employ its sons and daughters, Jordan said. And the influx translates into dollars that have enriched the city's coffers.
The prison, however, hasn't overshadowed the town along Oregon 18, a thoroughfare that many use on the way to the Oregon Coast.
More than likely, Jordan said, people traveling past the prison are likely to say, "What's that nice campuslike setting over there?
"They have no idea it's a prison. It's far off the traveled road. They don't see the fences. They see the nice buildings."
The Oregon Department of Corrections has proposed 10 new prisons and the expansion of four current prisons. They include:
Prisoners Increase These numbers represent the average number of inmates who are incarcerated in Oregon's state prison system each year starting in 1980. Oregon Department of Corrections officials will be asking for money to build 10 additional prisons in the state by the year 2005. Total number of prisons in the state, including the 10 projected, would be 22. [The graph, as it originally appeared in The Oregonian, shows an ascending row of vertical columns, where each column represents the number of prisoners in a given year. The chart starts in 1980 with 2,938 inmates. The actual number of prisoners for most years is omitted, although the total for 1995 looks to be something less than 8,000. Subsequent figures are projected estimates, beginning with 8,543 prisoners for 1996 and climbing rapidly to 19,066 in 2005.] Source: Oregon Department of Corrections
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