PORTLAND, Ore. — It might be one of the prettiest jails ever built.
A long driveway circles past a modern-art sculpture on the front lawn. The main building appears like a manor, with pink stucco and glass tile on the outside. The interior motif leans heavily toward pastels. Vaulted ceilings and open-air corridors suggest the design principles of feng shui.
The Wapato Facility, in the city's northern outskirts, took $59 million and two years to construct. But in the nearly two years since its completion -- as Portland has struggled with a crime surge -- not a single inmate has set foot in the building.
Multnomah County, in charge of Portland jails, can't afford to open it.
"We held a ceremony, cut the ribbon -- then locked the doors," says Sheriff Bernie Giusto, who attended the dedication in the summer of 2004. "We have a brand-new jail sitting here empty, and I don't have a good answer when the public asks me, 'Why was it built if there was no plan to operate it?'
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Prisoner release -- An article in Thursday's Section A about inmate early-release programs in the Portland, Ore., area described the views of Louise Grant, a member of a Portland crime commission, and Howard Weiner, the head of a public safety committee. Those descriptions appeared in the Portland Tribune on Jan. 31 and should have been attributed to the newspaper. Also, the article said a man who was released, Richard Paul Koehrsen, was 45. He is 46.
"Even I get tired of telling people how dumb we are."
Today, the jail is a symbol of Oregon's continuing financial troubles in the midst of an improving economy. As the state and its counties prepare for another round of budget cuts this year, Wapato has come to represent different shades of failure to different people.
Activists cite it as an example of government incompetence. "Remember Wapato!" has become a rallying cry for citizen groups bracing for new tax increases. Gov. Ted Kulongoski would like to raise the cigarette tax to pay for school programs. Portland Mayor Tom Potter has suggested a temporary personal income tax to make up for an expiring levy in Multnomah County.
Economists and politicians say Wapato reveals the instability inherent in Oregon's tax system, which makes local governments vulnerable to economic plunges.
Giusto just wants to put bad guys in his jail. For the sheriff, whose name adorns the front entrance, Wapato is a mocking reminder of what crime-fighting in the Portland area could be -- but isn't. For the last five years, an acute shortage of jail beds has forced police in the region -- Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties -- to systematically release inmates early to make room for new ones.
Multnomah County last year released a record 5,000 criminals: drug dealers, burglars, car prowlers and assorted con men, many of them drug addicts or mentally ill. Police say the situation has fueled an explosion in property crimes and has increasingly meant the release of dangerous criminals.
On Jan. 20, a man with a history of violence, Richard P. Koehrsen, 45, was arrested for trespassing and drinking in public. Because the county detention center was full, jailers released him and 14 other inmates the next day.
Two days after he was set free, Koehrsen was arrested again, this time accused of fatally stabbing a man in the neck downtown in front of Jake's Famous Crawfish. Witnesses said Koehrsen had gotten into a fight with Christopher Darryl John Carter, 42, a laborer and lifelong Portland resident.
The killing renewed public demands for more jail space. A member of a local crime commission, Louise Grant, called the incident appalling, and the head of a public safety committee, Howard Weiner, said it was time for the region to wake up to the problem.
The sheriff gritted his teeth.
"I love coming to an empty $59-million jail."
Giusto (pronounced JOOS-toe) can barely conceal his frustration. He is 55, a lifelong Oregonian, a career lawman and currently the disgruntled sheriff of the state's most populous county. He is conducting one of his occasional tours through Wapato in his campaign to swing wide its doors.
He talks of getting his staff to create a virtual tour of the jail so Oregonians on the Internet can see it for themselves. The tour would include an explanation to the vexing question of how Wapato came to be in the first place.
In sum: The jail was conceived during good times and finished during bad.
At the height of the boom years in the mid-1990s, Oregon taxpayers approved a levy to build the jail with the idea that rising property taxes -- the chief source of revenue for local governments in Oregon -- would generate money to operate it.
In 2000, a recession, along with two tax initiatives that imposed sharp limits on property taxes, caused the economy to plummet. Unemployment surged to 8.5%, the highest in the nation. Schools cut class lengths, social agencies dropped programs, and police sliced personnel -- in particular, corrections officers.
Fortunes changed about a year ago.
Revenue and job-creation figures show the state economy on a steady upswing. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.4% in January, the fourth straight month below 6%, a figure that economists associate with better times.
State Economist Tom Potiowsky recently characterized Oregon's economy as robust.