SPOKANE COUNTY, Wash. -- Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he is willing to put his political career on the line to convince the public there is a need for a new jail. But the opposition argued the county does not need a new jail and can't afford the nearly $200 million price tag.
Essentially the sheriff must sell the jail to the public. He has to convince voters to fund the project. Right now, Geiger Corrections Center looks like something out of an old prison movie. There has been a lot of retro-fitting through out the Geiger's history.
In 1997, the county started using it as overflow for the Downtown Spokane jail. But that temporary fix has stretched on for 14 years. Knezovich believes the Geiger Corrections Center is a ticking time bomb. He said the overcrowding problem has become so bad that inmates who should be kept at a more secure facility are being held at Geiger. And that is putting correctional officers at risk.
"Is it really going to cost a person's life before we change that system?" questioned Knezovich.
On top of that, when the downtown jail and Geiger are at capacity, criminals simply stay on the streets.
"They have literally told my deputies, 'Ya I have a warrant. You don't have room at the jail, so what?'", recalled Knezovich.
A group called The No Jail Coalition said the issue is not so black and white.
"I think this is a bigger issue than just the jail. This is a criminal justice system that is broken here in Spokane County and has been for many years," said No New Jail Coalition member Lucy Lennox.
Sheriff Knezovich contends a broken building is a key issue. Geiger is falling apart including a bathroom vent that dropped from the ceiling and inmates creating weapons from exposed metal pipes.
"People will say he's just trying to scare the public. No, I'm a realist and I see what's going on. We all see what's going on," said Knezovich.
The No New Jail Coalition said the problem needs to stop before it starts. They want to see the county spend more money on prevention and rehabilitation programs.
An inmate said it has to be a balance of both.
"You got crime and you got people that deserve to be in jail. There's just no doubt about that. But, at the same time, there are some people that just don't need to be in jail. They need programming," said Geiger inmate Arthur Allen.
Lenox argued that if we spend money on programs for youth, people will not end up in jail.
But the tallest fence to climb may be the nearly $200 million price tag. Part of it goes to replacing Geiger. The other goes towards renovating the downtown jail. The proposal would go to Spokane County voters. The Sheriff said the tax increase is a small price for your safety.
"Is our public safety worth $8.30 a month for a $200,000 home," said Knezovich.
Sheriff Knezovich said he recognizes talking taxes during a recession is unpopular. He feels so passionately about the need for a new jail, for the safety of correctional officers, and to keep criminals off the streets, Knezovich is willing to put his political career on the line.
"If this project wasn't needed, I wouldn't be sitting in front of you. That would be suicide and I'm not about to beat myself up," said Knezovich.
The lease for the Geiger facility is up in 2013. The airport board is not willing to sign another long-term lease. The sheriff hopes to get the jail bond on the ballot for November of next year.