Friday, March 24, 2006
Jailbreak: $58 million prison sits empty
It might be one of the most expensive pieces of government property never to be used.

Oregon's Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, built a $58 million jail. The "Wapato Facility," as it is known, was completed two years ago, yet it's completely vacant. The local sheriff, Bernie Giusto, it calls an "echo chamber."

It's not like there's a shortage of potential inmates. Portland actually has a jail overcrowding problem. Last year, the county released more than 4,500 inmates because they ran out of jail beds, according to the sheriff's department. What's going on here?

Voters signed-off on the money for the jail to be built, but the county didn't and still doesn't have the money to operate it. Local leaders say shrinking taxes are to blame, which is forcing tough choices between funding classrooms or prisons, for example.

For Sheriff Giusto, the most frustrating element is having a perfectly good facility sit empty. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he offered the jail as a solution for short-term housing for evacuees. (The Red Cross said "no" because it didn't think it would be appropriate to have storm refugees in a jail.)

Anyone who tours the jail can't help but feel a little perplexed by the situation. Despite being a jail, it's an impressive facility. It's clean and modern. There are two flat screen televisions for the inmates to watch. The kitchen is stainless steel.

Why did the government build a jail it can't operate? I kept wondering that as I looked around. And as of this writing, I still don't have an answer.
Posted By Dan Simon, CNN Correspondent: 12:27 PM ET
They have volunteer fire fighters and volunteer deputy sherrifs across the country, why not solicit volunteers to run the facility and redirect moneys for utilities and supplies until they can levy what's needed?

Isn't this a logical solution or am I totally off base here?
Posted By Anonymous Glen, Cleveland OHIO : 1:20 PM ET
Just because the local voters approved building it, that doesn't forgive the leaders who actually built it.

I would have expected the local leaders to have done a "reality check" and have foreseen if they not only had the money to build the new jail, but the money to run it.

I hope none of them get re-elected!
Posted By Anonymous Walt, Allentown, PA : 1:23 PM ET
Why don't they offer to house inmates from other states' facilities that are also overcrowded? This way they could charge the other states and use that revenue to offset the cost of housing their own inmates.
Posted By Anonymous Mary Allen, Airmont NY : 1:27 PM ET
I don't have a flat screen TV but inmates get them??? Why on earth do inmates have TV at all? Call me old fashioned but I'm sure there's plenty of work they could be doing for the State of Oregon to SAVE taxpayer money instead of spending it on home entertainment systems.
Posted By Anonymous Susan, Colorado : 1:34 PM ET
There are a number of private contract prison operators out there that could operate it. The contractors would probably ship in inmates from other facilities and other states to fill up the available capacity.
Posted By Anonymous TMLeigh, Westchester County, NY : 1:35 PM ET
Does the government ever do anything that makes sense?
I guess they thought if they built the jail someone would feel compelled to find a way to pay for running it. Sort of an "If you build it, they will come" attitude. We tell kids to think before they act. Apparently a lot government officials need to be told that too.
Posted By Anonymous Jennifer, Durham NC : 1:36 PM ET
Short sighted vision and poor planning are the usual culprits for this type of situation. I sure would scrutinize this management team for incompetence and replace them.
Posted By Anonymous Judy Stage Brooklyn Michigan : 1:37 PM ET
We had a similar problem here wherein inmates had to be released early due to overcrowding and lately we have been having some prison riots for about the same reasons. Now congress wants to make all illegal aliens felons, perfect, just what we need, more inmates.
Posted By Anonymous Emery Kuster, Burbank, CA : 1:37 PM ET
Dan, just so you know, there is another facility just like this in Illinois, I remember seeing something on the local news about it. So maybe this problem is more widespread than we all know.
Posted By Anonymous Doug Chicago,Illinois : 1:41 PM ET
I believe there is a state prison sitting empty in Thomson, Illinois also. It was built I believe 5-6 years ago. I've asked my Mom why it wasn't open and she didn't know why. I'm from Illinois, now residing in Indiana but my parents still live in my hometown which is located about hour away from the prison. It's near what use to be the Savanna Army Depot where I went for my Army Reserve duty.
Maybe you can find out why it's not in operation.
Posted By Anonymous Terese Peters Greencastle, Indiana : 1:41 PM ET
There's a similar situation in Thompson, IL. It's a beautiful new facility has has been vacant for several years with promises to open "soon." Why is this happening??
Posted By Anonymous Rose, Davenport, Iowa : 1:41 PM ET
Maybe the government was depending on the $35 billion of unpaid fines.
Posted By Anonymous Melissa, Blackfoot, ID : 1:43 PM ET
This has happened in Illinois as well. A prison has sat empty in the George Ryan-era and continues through the current administration.
Posted By Anonymous Ryan Mahan, Springfield, IL : 1:44 PM ET
This angers me because they spent this much to house prisoners. People who have committed a crime and need to be punished for it. However, their TV is bigger and better than mine. Their kitchen is cleaner than mine. And I have done nothing wrong. I also disagree with the overcrowding. Since when did jails become a place for people to complain about the living arrangements? That is the worst part of all. The other problem is that they can't decide between funding education or prisons. That should be a no brainer, kids are the future, no prisoners. This story is very sad, especially with all of the troubles with rebuilding the areas hit by Katrina. It bothers me and it should bother a lot of people that $58 million was spent to help prisoners have a better life than hard working citizens.
Posted By Anonymous Todd, Minneapolis, MN : 1:46 PM ET
Lets send New Orleans inmates there.
Posted By Anonymous Jimmy, New Orleans, LA : 1:46 PM ET
There is one just like it in Thompson, Illinois. Thompson State Prison. This one was 70 million built 5 years ago. Still empty. Hear they are paying someone "connected" $95,000 a year to go around and flush toilets to keep the plumbing from deteriorating.
Posted By Anonymous John Hammer, Rockford, Illinois : 1:50 PM ET
Americans are right to watch very closely how our taxes are spent. I think, though, there is a general lack of insight into the hugely complicated management issues surrounding government services. It's amazing anything gets accomplished at all, and really, we take for granted so much, the wealth of resources, the hard working general public, our citizens standards of excellence. It would be nice to see continued debate that was less polarized and political, less whiney. It does not serve our country to have the extreme left and right complaining so loudly, but getting little done, or acheiving extreme results that don't reflect what the vast moderate middle believe, i.e. unrestricted abortion as birth control- most Americans don't think that chopped up baby parts, that look like what they are, peices of killed dead babies, is OK, but because of extremists, its all or none, wholesale irresponsibility / slaughter vs. big brother in the bedroom and Dr.'s office. We need some middle ground, eh?!
Posted By Anonymous JB Reilly, Hastings MN : 1:52 PM ET
A similar incident has occurred in Colorado Springs, CO. A federal grant paid for a DNA testing lab for the city, but there are no funds for staffing, so it sits empty
Posted By Anonymous Larry Watson, Colorado Springs Co : 1:53 PM ET
Can't they rent it out to the state or federal government to maketheir money back? I'm sure there's got to be some private for-profit company that will lease the building and staff the guards to house prisoners for somebody. Maybe they could use this facility instead of Gitmo and avoid those wonderful complaints for detainees.
Posted By Anonymous Connie Cruz/San Antonio, TX : 1:55 PM ET
It's called PORK. Isn't that what's always put in bills that get passed in the middle of the night. This country better wake up and take notice of what is happening all over the place. Needless spending, taxes that are killing us and a party in charge that is breaking this great nation of ours. Pray for us!
Posted By Anonymous TJ Hawkins, Springfield, MO : 1:58 PM ET
The governement didn't build the jail, the people did, surfing the wave of three strikes and you're locked up. A movement throughout Oregon has resulted in a large increase in convicted felons. However, as is so often the case with knee jerk conservative causes, nobody came up with a plan on how to operate the jail once it was built. The County has been trying to figure out a way to pay for the operations, but the knee jerk conservative battle cry of 'no new taxes' has stymied any efforts to do so.
Posted By Anonymous Jim, Portland, Oregon : 1:59 PM ET
I think you should let any storm survivors, who want to, stay at the jail for a limited time at a reasonable price until they can afford to get their own homes.
Posted By Anonymous Terri Goggin, Anaheim, CA : 1:59 PM ET
Here's is an answer for you: The government ALWAYS waste money on things/projects that it cannot afford. You know everyone talks about how the world would be a much better place if criminals (murderers, sex offenders, robbers, etc.) were off the street. Well, here is a facility able to house them and yet we release 4500!!! I don't understand how our world works, and to tell you the truth I don't think I will ever know.
Posted By Anonymous Karmen, New York : 2:01 PM ET
When I read this story, all I could do was laugh and shake my head in disbelief. I'll bet no one got fired over this waste of taxpayer money either. They probably got promoted, or even better, they are probably running for state office now so they can waste even bigger amounts taxpayer money.
Posted By Anonymous Michael Dever, Orlando Florida : 2:01 PM ET
Thats great. Build a huge prison complete with flatscreen TVs. Whats next for the prisoners? Designer bed sheets? Leather chairs?
58 million and no one can afford to operate it? I intern for the DOC in Goochland and I cant wait to share this story.
Posted By Anonymous Kena, Richmond VA : 2:02 PM ET
Sorry, correction...Thomson (not Thompson)State Prison, Thomson, Illinois is a $143 million dollar facility completed four/five years ago, and still sits empty. great use of taxpayer dollors, huh. And criminals walk the street because of overcrowding at other jails???
Posted By Anonymous John Hammer, Rockford, Illinois : 2:02 PM ET
Dan Simon, there are more than this. There is an empty State Prison in Thompson, Illinois which should be made visible to the public as well.
Posted By Anonymous Larry Olson Bristow VA : 2:09 PM ET
There are probably many inmates who can afford to pay to stay in a new facility. Rent the cells to inmates that have the means. The families can pay for their stay.
Posted By Anonymous Tomas Zapata, Melbourne, Fl. : 2:13 PM ET
I live in Oregon, in Salem the Capital actually, and I can't help but feel frustrated about how they release prisoners. These criminals that are released because there is inadequate space, are a problem. The state transports them from all over, and releases them locally (practically in our backyards). Oregon has a growing Meth Problem, and many of the inmates are in there due to drug related crimes. Instead of taking them where they came from, they overcrowd our streets with addicts, and of course the more addicts there are the more dealers there are!

My kids are 4 & 6 yrs old, and very soon we are going to have to move for their safety. In the last year alone we have had Graffitti, Vandalism & our tires slashed (all for no reason... except maybe for "punks" entertainment because they are up and about at 4:00am). I grew up in this town and it used to be so safe, as a 1st grader I used to walk 11 blocks to school (usually by myself because all the neighbor kids were older, and my mom was a single working parent with 5 kids). But, in that day it was okay, my neighbors used to keep an eye out for me. Now we live 2 blocks from my sons grade school and we dare not let him walk alone or with a small group of kids (it is simply not safe).

My bestfriends 8th grade daughter is always being approached to buy drugs (she says that kids and adults ask her). He is thinking about moving back to Las Vegas, because it is in general more safer. Violent crimes here are relatively low, but drugs, assaults, and property crimes are going sky high (like many of the released prisoners causing the problem).

We need to come up with the funding to use facilities like this one in the story... PERIOD!!!

Concerned Local.
Posted By Anonymous Anthony M. Salem, OR : 2:18 PM ET
The city knew this before hand. They should be required to cough up the maintenance money or have to pay back the government.

If not, I live in Kansas and I want one to.
Posted By Anonymous Jerry Woody Wichita, Kansas : 2:25 PM ET
Flat screen televisions, in a jail, are you kidding me????!!!!
Posted By Anonymous Josiah, Grand Rapids, MI : 2:28 PM ET
This is a fine example of why our government is broke. What a waste!!!
Posted By Anonymous Amy, Southaven, MS : 2:29 PM ET
Once again an absolute waste of government spending our taxes
Posted By Anonymous Tom, Irvine, CA : 2:30 PM ET
Waste of time and money. what an embarrassment
Posted By Anonymous John, Boca Raton, Florida : 2:38 PM ET
If our govt would pull the troops from Iraq, stop running a deficit with China, and put tighter watch on the boarders which is messing up the economy also, then probably more than likely the money to run this prison would turn up.
Posted By Anonymous Anthony Roanoke, VA : 2:38 PM ET
The Multnomah County Commissioners (or at least the majority) are among the most liberal, activist and anti-police elected officials in the state. When looking for the "Why" in this puzzle, think "priorities" and not "too little taxing" going on.
Posted By Anonymous John Donahue, Salem, Oregon : 2:39 PM ET
Dan. You ask the perfect question. Building prisons makes people feel safe and are a great issue to rally behind. The local law makers and politicians can say that they helped keep their city safe...but did they really? The 4,500 inmates released are not "reformed," we are kidding ourselves if we think they are. Perhaps the question to ask is how many of the 4,500 relased are back in jail where they came from?
Posted By Anonymous Matt, Kansas City MO. : 2:40 PM ET
Almost identical to the situation in Thomson, Illinois--facility didn't cost as much as the one mentioned in this blog, but even though prisons are over capacity in the "Land of Lincoln", this new one is still empty. Current governor, who is up for re-election, is promising to open one of the wings...
Posted By Anonymous Patty Pigford, Colorado Springs, CO : 2:43 PM ET
States can save a lot of money by getting welfare people off thier rear ends and working. STOP the welfare cheats. I see a woman who is getting free rent and the state pays $1,500 a month for the house. Why does she have 4 cars in the driveway all night?
Posted By Anonymous Michael King, Epping, NH : 2:45 PM ET
Offer free lodging to the homeless. Also, why end the story with a dig on the government? You already know why the government built a jail it can't operate (shrinking tax revenue).
Posted By Anonymous norman seattle : 2:46 PM ET
This disgusts me. First of all we have a surplus of inmates here in California, and the fact that this state of the art prison sits empty shows me that there is something wrong with the way our lawmakers think. We are being taxed to the hilt in order to house criminals, while there is an available facility--brand new I might add-- to house them! This new facility could alleviate over crowding and the threat of early release. Some of our most dangerous criminals are released too soon because there is no where to house them--why can't states work together, and why does the public have to pay for this injustice? This was poorly planned!
Posted By Anonymous Aimee, Alta Loma, CA : 2:49 PM ET
None of this is a suprise for those of us who are fortunate to observe Portland and Oregon politics on a daily basis. Those people are idiots.
Posted By Anonymous Doug Banks/Vancouver, WA : 3:08 PM ET
More often than not, public officials have what may be called ulterior motives for supporting expenditures like this. The truth is, usually nobody could tell. They come up with these ideas and they one way or the other coerce the unsuspecting public into see things their way....

The question is why don't this people direct more effort and public funds towards projects that may obviate the need to have a facility like this in the first place?
Posted By Anonymous Augie, Boston MA : 3:08 PM ET
Sounds like it would be a really nice facility for the state politicians and "get tough on crime" advocates. Evan
Posted By Anonymous Denver, CO : 3:15 PM ET
I believe we have one of those here in Rushville, Il.

A new prison never used, but it has one employee that keeps the building up and running

B Pyles
Macomb, IL.
Posted By Anonymous B. Pyles, Macomb, IL. : 3:16 PM ET
Hmmm, smells like pork to me! The questions are common. Who got paid to build this? Who made money off of this doomed venture? For every good government project there are three bad ones that get approved. One would think we would explore all the ins and outs of such endeavors prior to moving forward, but alas that makes too much sense -- and SOMEONE is getting paid. One can only hope that alternative uses of this facility will be explored so that this monumental waste doesn't continue unchecked. It's downright vulgar -- in fact, its CRIMINAL.
Posted By Anonymous Stephanie H., Brooklyn NY : 3:21 PM ET
Background: Oregon law prohibits combining operating funds and construction funds in the same bond measure. Several other bond issues were on the ballot that year, and it was determined that before the facility was completed there'd be time to float an operating levy. However, revenues tanked in the following years, and so did public support for any new bond issues or levies.

BTW, one of the sharpest critics of the current Sheriff on this issue is his predecessor, on whose watch this jail was built.
Posted By Anonymous Jim, Clackamas OR : 4:47 PM ET
Although I generally agree that the whole boondogle sounds like pork, I have to take issue with the comments on flat screen TV's. There are realities of housing groups of men and women under guard, and one is that two flat screen TV's are probably worth 12 paid guards in prison managment terms. Ultimately, while people want to be tough on crime, they don't realize that in prison environments, past a certain threshold, the resulting disturbances take more resources to deal with than the little perks that give some control over inmates. The questions prison designers have to answer include - do we spend lots of money for isolation (which, if you give no outlet like TV is the only solution to internal unrest) or do we spend less on barracks housing and provide perks (which can be taken away for disciplinary reasons) so that managment has tools to maintain order.
Posted By Anonymous Jeremy, Sheridan, AR : 5:03 PM ET
FYI Portland has some of the highest taxes per capita in the country and are growing even higher, yet the local leaders say shrinking taxes are to blame. This is a case of pure mis-apporiation of government funds and poor planning(Which portland is famous for).
Posted By Anonymous Steve, Beaverton, Oregon : 5:20 PM ET
Jim from Oregon blames the conservatives. What a ridiculous statement. Jim, when you are done cashing your welfare check that the liberals want you to have maybe you can figure our why the Portland Public Schools want to keep taxing the citizens. Oh, make sure you tell the people that 30% of additional tax went to feed the public retirement fund...oh and that state government employees didn't have to pay the tax.
Posted By Anonymous Eric, Portland, Oregon : 5:44 PM ET
A behind the scenes look at "Anderson Cooper 360°" and the stories it covers, written by Anderson Cooper and the show's correspondents and producers.

    What's this?
CNN Comment Policy: CNN encourages you to add a comment to this discussion. You may not post any unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic or other material that would violate the law. Please note that CNN makes reasonable efforts to review all comments prior to posting and CNN may edit comments for clarity or to keep out questionable or off-topic material. All comments should be relevant to the post and remain respectful of other authors and commenters. By submitting your comment, you hereby give CNN the right, but not the obligation, to post, air, edit, exhibit, telecast, cablecast, webcast, re-use, publish, reproduce, use, license, print, distribute or otherwise use your comment(s) and accompanying personal identifying information via all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, worldwide, in perpetuity. CNN Privacy Statement.