Back in 1994, the US State of Oregon passed a 'one strike and you're out' law. It meant that there was a mandatory minimum prison sentence issued for certain crimes. With a lot more criminals now serving longer sentences, there was going to be a greater demand for prisons. And so Wapato Correctional Facility was funded, built and then... just sat there. Empty. Never used.
Budget limitations got in the way. Multnomah County received the $58 million in funding to build it, but its budget never went far enough to actually operate the facility. It wasn't as if the prison wasn't needed - Portland had a prison overcrowding problem that was so serious that 4500 inmates were released in 2005 just to ease the congestion.
The plan for the prison was a 510-bed jail that would include 300 alcohol and drug beds. A fight over these treatment beds erupted between the then County Sheriff, the Board of Commissioners and Department of Community Justice, resulting in a 525-bed jail eventually being built that did not include any beds designated for the treatment of inmates.
Funding for the day-to-day running of the jail vanished following the passing of ballot initiatives in 1996/97 to limit the payment of property taxes. So, when the jail was finally built and opened in July of 2004, new Sheriff Bernie Giusto had to explain that the new jail couldn't afford to operate. To run the prison would cost up to $10 million a year. But it was significantly cheaper, at just $300,000 a year to maintain the prison if it were to stay closed.
So, you have a prison and can't afford to stock it with prisoners. What do you do with the prison?
Wapato Correctional Facility couldn't be sold. Because the jail was initially funded with tax-exempt bonds, Multnomah County weren't permitted to sell it until it had been paid off which wouldn't be until October 2016.
In 2014, with the opportunity approaching to sell it, the County made it known that the prison was open to offers to buy or lease it. Again, in 2015 County Chair Deborah Kafoury publicly stated they were looking for offers.
Nobody was interested.
Open it up to the homeless?
On paper, this sounds like a fantastic idea.
The reality was that the location of the facility was too far away from the city. It requires a 90-minute bus ride and a 25-minute walk from Portland’s downtown, which is where most of the city's homeless services are located.
A formerly homeless Portland resident, DJ Husar, spoke with the Portland Mercury: “I’d rather sleep in a tent under the Morrison Bridge than sleep all the way out there. What if I have a doctor’s appointment in the morning? So many providers are right here.”
Within the past year, Wapato prison found a buyer who initially chose to demolish it. The paperwork has been filed by current owner and property developer Jordan Schnitzer.
Schnitzer put demolition plans on hold, however, despite it costing $50,000 per month to sit there. He's persisting with efforts to find a use for the facility, and says he would be happy to help raise funds for that purpose.
It seems the desire to use the building for a homeless shelter has diminished considerably, with local authorities now looking for other novel ideas to help contain Portland's homeless population, including housing them on a 122-metre ship at a cost of $5 million.
For the moment, Wapato Correctional Facility continues to sit there. Abandoned.
Discover more abandoned projects in a new 6-part documentary series. Abandoned Engineering airs Sundays at 6:45pm on SBS VICELAND. Watch the first episode at SBS On Demand: