By Paul Kiefer
Last Friday, Washington’s Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO) released the final recommendations from a nearly two-year-long review of the state’s work release program that found an alarming pattern of retaliation and arbitrary discipline by contract staff at work release centers across the state.
Work release centers are housing facilities for people in DOC custody; residents stay for less than a year, transitioning back into normal life by working civilian jobs, visiting family members, and attending counseling sessions.
Since the state legislature created the OCO as the oversight agency for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2018, the office has repeatedly investigated allegations about work release staffers responding to criticism or complaints by returning residents to prison for minor rule violations.
In 2018, a resident at a work release facility in Spokane attempted to file a sexual assault and harassment complaint against a guard, only to be arrested and returned to prison for allegedly threatening her harasser—an allegation that the OCO later called “hearsay.” In 2019, staff at a work release center in Beacon Hill allegedly conspired to return a resident to prison after she criticized the work release program during a meeting with DOC administrators. And in 2020, an OCO investigation concluded that staff members at a work release center in Pioneer Square may have sent a resident back to prison in retaliation for a protest by his family members outside the center.
“When people leave for work, to ride a bus, to buy clothes… they’re all terrified. They’re all scared to death that they’re going to mess up something tiny and get sent back to prison.”—Prisoners’ rights advocate Melody Simle
Many other incidents of alleged retaliation by work release administrators flew further under the radar. One work release resident returned to prison after staffers found a small drill bit, which she said belonged to her boyfriend, in her backpack; in other cases, work release staff disciplined residents for returning to their centers late after missing a bus.
“Those centers are supposed to be a bridge back into society,” said Melody Simle, a prisoners’ rights advocate whose brother spent time in a Snohomish County work release center. “But instead, the centers have been really focused on punishing people for the smallest things. In the two years I’ve been doing this work, the number one complaint is that when people leave for work, to ride a bus, to buy clothes… they’re all terrified. They’re all scared to death that they’re going to mess up something tiny and get sent back to prison.”
And a negative experience in work release can be the difference between thriving on the outside and repeatedly returning to jail, said Milo Burshaine, who recently left a work release center in Seattle. “Work release can make or break you,” he said. “If someone’s going to do well on the outside, it’s important that work release staff pay attention to their needs—to their mental health, to their stress. A work release that’s too punitive doesn’t help someone adjust to independence.”
In response to advocacy from incarcerated people and their families, OCO Director Joanna Carnes asked the department to convene a work group in 2020 to discuss short- and long-term changes to the department’s work release program. Most of the work group’s members were DOC staff, including the department’s Assistant Secretary for Re-Entry, Danielle Armbruster. The group didn’t include staff from the work release centers named in complaints about retaliation.
The group also did not include any formerly incarcerated members, though it did include two people whose relatives had spent time in work release centers—including Simle, who helped organize meetings with residents at work release centers in Seattle and Tacoma to gather feedback.
Because the work group wasn’t tethered to a particular misconduct complaint, its focus quickly expanded well beyond the issue of retaliation. For example, the OCO report recommends work release residents receive consistent internet access and orientation packets. The work group also provided an opportunity to push through longstanding changes to the work release system, including an agreement by the DOC to allow residents at work release facilities statewide to have personal cars to commute to and from their jobs; previously, residents at work release centers in Seattle and some other cities could only commute by public transit.
But arbitrary or excessive discipline in work release centers remained at the core of the work group’s conversations. Drawing from those discussions, the OCO recommended that DOC create a standardized training for staff members who preside over disciplinary hearings; that incarcerated people accused of breaking work release rules receive copies of the evidence against them; and that the DOC identify less-severe alternatives to returning people to prison for minor slip-ups.
Crucially, the OCO also asked the DOC to come up with a “clear vision statement for work release centers” that emphasizes rehabilitation and support through the twists and turns of re-entry, as opposed to centers that test residents’ abilities to adhere flawlessly to DOC rules.
The DOC agreed to many of the work group’s proposed reforms, such as providing a wider range of sanctions for residents who break DOC rules—agreements that drew praise from advocates like Simle. But the department did not agree to adopt a new vision statement for work release, leaving some advocates concerned about the department’s willingness to follow through on promises to improve.
“Instead of just agreeing to write a new vision statement, the DOC sidestepped the issue,” said Teresa Hertz, a work group member whose son spent time in a work release center in Bellingham. “If that’s too much of a stretch, it says something about how sincere they are about fixing the problems in work release.”
And though the DOC has begun training work release supervisors to avoid retaliation, Hertz also noted that the OCO’s report didn’t address the more fundamental issue of accountability for work release staff who engage in retaliation—including those who have already done so without punishment.
“Not holding the staff accountable means that more people won’t thrive in work release. That means more people won’t have a chance to readjust to life outside, which means more people going back to prison.”—Milo Burshaine, recent DOC work release participant
“Training doesn’t necessarily mean things will change,” she said. Work release staff who haven’t followed the rules for punishing participants for years have become “used to unchecked power,” Hertz said, “and if they just get retrained and are allowed to keep their jobs after they lie or retaliate against a resident, what good does that do?”
Burshaine added that failing to hold problematic staff members accountable could also undermine the core purpose of work release programs: acclimating people to civilian life after years behind bars. “Not holding the staff accountable means that more people won’t thrive in work release,” he said. “That means more people won’t have a chance to readjust to life outside, which means more people going back to prison.”
While the DOC does conduct investigations into complaints against its staff, their findings have sometimes been at odds with the OCO. For instance, a departmental investigation of the guard who allegedly groped a resident at the work release center in Spokane did not find the guard guilty of sexual misconduct, though the DOC did transfer the guard to an all-male facility for separate, more minor policy violations.
At the moment, it may be difficult for members of the public to track whether the DOC improves conditions and disciplinary practices in work release centers as promised. In an email, DOC spokeswoman Jacque Coe said the department is putting together an exit survey for people leaving work release to gauge the success of the reforms. Coe also noted that the DOC is still deciding how to measure the success of the work release program. Meanwhile, the OCO doesn’t have the authority to require the DOC to comply with its recommendations.