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If the state has agreed to keep Pine Lodge open a year, why are inmates being prepped for transfer?

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The Pine Lodge women’s prison — pulled from the state’s chopping block, at least for now — is still abuzz with rumor and suspicion. Employees say they can’t get straight answers from supervisors, and they point to the upcoming transfer of offenders to westside facilities as proof of a deeper plot.

“There is a lot of suspicion,” says Tim Welch, director of public affairs for the Washington Federation of State Employees, the union representing workers at Pine Lodge.

One staffer, who stressed she is speaking as a private citizen on her own time, says Pine Lodge Superintendent Walker Morton told employees a few weeks ago that 25 offenders would be shipped elsewhere.

“Now he says it’s only eight,” says Helen Biddulph, an information officer at the prison. She does not know why the number has changed or where the inmates are going.

“I asked if we had an action plan and if I could see the plan,” Biddulph says. “I got one sheet of paper that said we were moving inmates in February and closing in May. Where are the details? They obviously have them, they are just not sharing them.”

Superintendent Morton, while telling The Inlander he could only route his comments through headquarters, did say that the talk of 25 transfers next week was “not true,” and that he is not aware of any transfers scheduled for March.

Even next week’s transfer is opaque. “We have not seen the TOs – the transfer orders. The TOs are being cut from headquarters. They are not being cut here,” Biddulph says.

Maria Peterson, an information officer with the DOC in Olympia, says that nine offenders are being transferred out of Pine Lodge next week — all from Western Washington — and that these are routine and sending the women closer to home.

Marie Jorgenson, a records tech at Pine Lodge who also stresses she is speaking as a private citizen on her own time, says it is not normal to transfer eight women at a time, and that it is also unusual that Pine Lodge staffers had no role in making up the transfer orders.

The lingering suspicions come after Pine Lodge was slated for closure and then pulled off the list following a local uproar. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D- Spokane, stepped in as well and called a meeting with Gov. Chris Gregoire and Department of Corrections honchos to stave off the closure of the only women’s facility in Eastern Washington.

But officials in the Legislature and the administration appear unable to say exactly how long is the reprieve. Also, DOC officials say they are unable to provide recidivism numbers (tracking how many women leave prison successfully and don’t return) for Pine Lodge.

Many of the advocates for keeping the prison open cite its success at helping offenders turn their lives around, arguing that if the state really wants to save money it should not close a prison that keeps people from coming back.

Meanwhile, in the claim and counter claim, Gov. Gregoire’s Spokane-based aide Steve Becker visited Pine Lodge on Monday, spoke to numerous offenders and is preparing a report, he says. Whether or not his report sheds any light on the situation — or finally puts Pine Lodge employees at ease — remains to be seen.

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