Closure of King County’s Only Work Release for Women Raises Gender Equity Questions

The closed Helen B. Ratcliff House on Beacon Hill in Seattle

By Paul Kiefer

When the only work release facility for women in King County closed last November, it sparked no public outcry—in fact, Washington’s Department of Corrections didn’t even announce it was closing. But for women from King County awaiting their transfer from prison to a work release facility, the closure of the Helen B. Ratcliff House in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood presented a new hurdle.

The few women housed at Helen B. Ratcliff House when it closed transferred to the scarce women’s beds in work release facilities in Tacoma and Olympia.  Women scheduled to move to work release in Seattle often faced even worse options. One woman, who PubliCola will call R to protect her identity, landed at a work release facility in Spokane. “Work release is supposed to be helpful because you can find your footing in your community before you’re fully released,” she said. “I’d never even been to Spokane. I didn’t know anyone there.” Though the Spokane facility had fewer than a dozen residents when she arrived, R noted that roughly half of the women at the facility were from King County.

Work release facilities are low-security detention centers that allow incarcerated people to work, attend school, and visit their families during the final months of their prison sentence.  People tend to transfer to work release facilities in their home county, where they can rebuild their relationships with friends and family, find a steady job, and develop a support system to ease the transition into post-prison life.

“The whole point of work release is to help people acclimate back into their communities,” said Joe Nguyen (D-34, White Center), the vice chair of the senate’s reentry and rehabilitation committee. “If they’re sent somewhere that’s hours away from home, or even to the other side of the state, that’s probably an indicator that work release might not be successful for them.”

In Washington state, work release beds for women, who make up five percent of the state’s incarcerated population, are few and far between. Most of the state’s eleven work release facilities reserve only a handful of beds for women. The facility in Spokane is Washington’s only remaining all-women work release center.

In contrast, incarcerated men from King County still have two all-male work release facilities available to them. The two work release facilities for men in Seattle—one across from the King County Courthouse and another on First Hill—remain open, and the two facilities combined have dozens of vacant beds, in part because COVID-19 outbreaks at the facilities limited the number of people who could be housed safely in each building.

“It’s not equitable,” said Sonja Hallum, the Director of Washington’s Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO), during a stakeholder meeting last week.

Paula Bond, whose daughter spent time in the mixed-gender work release facility in Tacoma, told PubliCola that single-gender facilities are especially vital for women, regardless of how few women go to work release. “The number one issue why women go to prison is addiction. The number two reason is men, and there’s a lot of crossover,” she said. “There’s a huge correlation between sexual trauma and going to prison for women. It can be traumatizing, or it can be a barrier to get back on your feet, to be placed in a work release with men, and women in western Washington need a place to go for work release if they don’t want to worry about that.”

The company that contracted with the Department of Corrections to run the Helen B. Ratcliff House, called the Progress House Association, informed the DOC two months in advance that it planned to pull out of Seattle, and the 53-bed facility was mostly empty when it closed.

The house wasn’t free of controversy while it was open—in 2019, for instance, the OCO investigated allegations that staff at the facility conspired to retaliate against a resident who criticized the work release program during a meeting with DOC administrators. The allegations fit into a broader pattern of complaints from formerly incarcerated people about work release staff across Washington being too quick to punish residents for minor infractions, including returning to a work release facility late because of public transit delays.

Despite criticisms of the program, work release plays an important role in Washington’s efforts to scale back its prison population and reduce recidivism. In 2019, faced with a growing waitlist for work release beds, the state legislature set aside funding to build new work release facilities, including in King County. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections set about searching for ways to reduce the state’s prison population to bring down the state’s annual spending on incarceration, adding more urgency to the effort to expand the work release program.

But instead of expanding, work release options in King County shrank. The Department of Corrections’ plan to open a new facility in SeaTac fell through last September, when the SeaTac city council voted to prevent the department from building a new facility along International Boulevard for at least the next year.  The COVID-19 pandemic reduced the capacity of the county’s existing work release facilities as administrators tried to stem outbreaks by reducing crowding. And in November, Helen B. Ratcliff House closed its doors.

In Nguyen’s view, the DOC could not have prepared for the challenges of the past two years. “For the work release program, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of Helen B. Ratcliff House is basically the perfect storm.” For example, he said, the department likely would not have prepared a backup work release facility for women in King County given the relatively small numbers of women in work release. Finding a new contractor to keep Helen B. Ratcliff running, he said, would also be challenging—viable candidates to run the program are few and far between.

The DOC would not specify how many women from King County went to work release facilities in Spokane or elsewhere in Washington since last November. The department sent R to her mother’s house in Seattle with an ankle monitor shortly after her arrival because of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Spokane work release facility, but she says that her remaining contacts at the facility tell her that of the less than a dozen women who arrived in Spokane after her, most are from King County.

Meanwhile, R is telling incarcerated women from King County to forego work release for the time being. “If I could do it over again, given the current situation, I would have stayed in prison until my release,” she said. “Work release in Seattle would have given me a chance to get on my feet while keeping some independence. Instead, I’m now in custody at my mom’s house and she expects me to give her money. I had to go almost straight from prison to having my family depend on me.” But for some women, she added, going to work release in Spokane may be their only option. “There are women who don’t have family to take them in, even if that’s not as good as work release. If you just left them out, where are they going to go? If they’ve been in prison for fifteen or twenty years, they might not know how to use a computer. But there are too few beds for women in Tacoma and Olympia, and that leaves just staying in prison or going to Spokane.”

In the meantime, the state legislature gave the DOC approval to use the unspent dollars from the work release expansion program to hire new staff—working directly for the Department of Corrections, instead of for a contractor—to reopen Helen B. Ratcliff House, although department spokesman Tobby Hately told PubliCola the building will need to undergo renovations before it can reopen, likely this summer.

Nguyen says the predicament created by the closure of the Seattle work release facility for women shows the importance of getting the work release expansion program running again. “If we’re trying to give people more and better opportunities to get back on their feet, we’re going to need more work release facilities in general, but it’s clear we need to start by sorting out this equity problem,” Nguyen said.