JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- As the ceremonial shovels pushed into the dirt, the ground was broken on a new phase in the long saga of a facility which has held different names over the decades, and has been home to thousands of servicemembers.
The Northwestern Joint Regional Correctional Facility filled an important need on Joint Base Lewis-McChord since 1957, and the construction of a brand new facility ensures it will continue to do so for decades more. But it's more than simply a prison, and it takes more than a building to complete a mission that requires constant training and 24-hour operations.
"While we're sad to see it go, this is another chapter in the history of NWJRCF," said Lt. Col. Christopher Hodl, commander, 508th Military Police (Detention) Battalion and NWJRCF Director. "Because it's not the building by itself, but the people within it who give it character, personality and life."
The first detention facility on Fort Lewis was a temporary building erected before World War II, when future president Dwight D. Eisenhower was stationed on the installation. It wasn't until the mid-1950s when a permanent facility was approved.
The new facility will be constructed over the next two years on roughly the same land footprint of the old prison. The last prisoners who occupied NWJRCF were either sent to the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or finished out their sentences locally.
Designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Seattle District, the new NWJRCF will have a more modern look but continue the same programs that benefited the community and prisoners alike.
"The new state of the art facility will provide a better opportunity to rehabilitate and provide treatment for these individuals," said Ennice Hobbs, Jr., deputy director, NWJRCF. "So when they're released they can return to society as more productive individuals."
While they are assigned to NWJRCF to finish their sentence, prisoners can enroll in a variety of vocational programs, such as horticulture, small engine repair, carpentry and barbering skills. The programs are taught through a contract with Clover Park Technical College in nearby Lakewood, Wash., and give prisoners new skills they can employ after their time at NWJRCF.
The surrounding community directly benefits from the horticulture program, as it donates thousands of pounds of fresh produce to local foodbanks. Giant pumpkins grown in the horticulture program even competed in local competitions in 2019.
With no correctional facility to operate during the construction period, 508th MP Bn (D) will shift their mission.
"It provides an opportunity for the Soldiers to train, an opportunity to work on some of our other skills," said 1st Sgt. Tiffany Chagdes, 595th Military Police Company. "These are things we haven't traditionally devoted a lot of time to because of the amount of Soldiers it takes to operate the facility."
The importance of having military correctional facilities operated by Soldiers and other servicemembers was highlighted during the groundbreaking ceremony. Brigadier General Duane Miller, commanding general, U.S. Army Corrections Command, compared it to the same reason Army medical Soldiers work at military hospitals.
"It's a critical component in building readiness," said Miller, who spoke at the March 3 groundbreaking ceremony. "The individual collective skills of the detention specialist is developed through working their profession."
For this reason, the NWJRCF will continue to be a training asset for the Soldiers of 508th MP Bn (D) as they continue to be ready for any upcoming deployment.
"As one of few detention units, we have to be ready to go," said Hodl, on the possibility of conducting detention operations in a deployed environment. "The facility contributes to the readiness of the Army."