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Bulging at the Bars 

A lot of factors led to Chris Rentz's death at the Spokane County jail in October 2004. The 21-year-old -- doing time for stealing a tank of gas -- was killed by one of his cellmates, a 28-year-old felon awaiting a sanity assessment. Maybe the county needed to address the way it was handling mentally ill inmates. Maybe they shouldn't have shown them The Passion of the Christ.

One factor all involved agreed on, though, was that the jail was too crowded, and that tight quarters inside the cells were ramping up the tension and spreading employees dangerously thin.

In a story The Inlander ran on the subject in 2005, Don Manning, Sr., who helped design the jail in 1986 and served as jail commander for 13 years, told us the facility was built for 450 inmates but could still run effectively if the population inflated to 500. Then-sheriff Mark Sterk aimed higher, but told us, "Any time we get over 650, it's dangerous for the officers and the inmates."

But today, the jail routinely holds 650 inmates, according to the sheriff. Cells originally designed for one person are now double-bunked. Patrol cars often have to wait outside because intake is so backed up.

Now add to this the troubles over at Geiger Corrections Center, a low- and medium-security facility that acts as overflow for the county jail. Built for 610 inmates, it's now hovering close to capacity, at 570. What's worse, the facility's leaseholder -- Spokane International Airport -- has already announced that it doesn't intend to renew the lease when it's up in 2013.

Now what?

That's the question Spokane County officials were asking themselves at a meeting at the Spokane Fire Training Center last Thursday. Hoping to land a bond measure on next November's ballot, they've begun analyzing sites for a new facility to replace Geiger and supplement the current jail. As of meeting time, they'd identified 13 possible sites, which they'll soon narrow to ten, then -- through various stages of public input -- three, then the final site that voters would consider in November.

Blown-up Google maps of the 13 sites hung along one wall of the conference room Thursday. The sites range across the county from the east Valley to Airway Heights to Cheney, and from two acres to 576. The two-acre site is a piece of land on the county campus, just north of the existing jail. The largest site is the Spokane Raceway Park. In between are sites like the ORV park, the city-owned Playfair site, 11.26 acres owned by Spokane Transit Authority and a 30-acre parcel near a primate center on Department of Social and Health Services land, near Medical Lake. (Quit yer sniggering -- we know the primate center already has the bars.)

Developer and land consultant Jim Kolva, underscoring that building a prison isn't as easy as building a new condo, outlined the criteria for selecting a new site, including size, impacts on public safety and the environment, and the cost of transporting inmates. (The liability of transportation, too: Just this week, a 33-year-old inmate escaped custody while being transported from Geiger to the county courthouse.) This is something, he noted, that is "essential to the community, but that no one wants next door."

Kolva and others also stressed, though, that it's not just about the jail. Easing overcrowding, they say, is also going to take broad systemic changes -- adjusting the way the entire process runs, from arrest to booking to prosecution to incarceration. "We've got to attack the entire system," said Jerry Winkler with Integrus Architecture, the firm hired to facilitate the planning process and design the new facility. "If all we're able to do is construct a building, then I think we've failed."

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