Tag: Department of Corrections

County Police Oversight Office Expands, Campaign for Council President Begins, State Still Using Solitary Confinement Cells for COVID Quarantine

1. King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which audits King County Sheriff’s Office policies and reviews misconduct investigations by the sheriff’s office, is set to grow next year after the King County Council added two new positions to the office—a first step, OLEO Director Tamer Abouzeid said, in his long-term plans to expand the responsibilities and reach of the office.

County voters approved a charter amendment in 2015 empowering OLEO to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force by sheriff’s officers, but the county’s contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild—the union representing most of the rank-and-file sheriff’s officers—stripped OLEO of most of its investigative authority in 2020. The office is now mostly an advisory body.

Last year, OLEO flagged problems with objectivity or thoroughness in five of the 56 use-of-force investigations it reviewed. The office has only one designated staffer to review more than 100 investigations a year, out of hundreds of investigations by the sheriff’s office. This has meant “a lot of triaging to manage the workload,” Abouzeid said. For now, his office focuses its energy on investigations into alleged biased policing or excessive force.

One of the two new staffers will join OLEO’s investigation review team. The second will be on the office’s policy analysis team, part of Abouzeid’s push to expand his office’s role as a quasi-think tank on police oversight policy for Washington state. “We would like to see statewide policy to codify the roles of civilian oversight bodies, because otherwise oversight becomes a hodgepodge of what police unions negotiate into their contracts,” he said.

King County is preparing to negotiate a new contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild after the current contract expires at the end of the month, which could be a chance for the county to restore OLEO’s authority to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force. In October, the county council asked OLEO to submit suggestions for improvements to the next contract. “Our plan is to be able to do the job that voters wanted us to do,” Abouzeid said. “That takes a new contract, and it also means that we’ll need to keep adding staff in the near future.”

The council also approved some expansions of the sheriff’s budget, including more than $1 million for emphasis patrols around the county courthouse and $4 million to offer hiring and retention incentives to sheriff’s officers.

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2. City council members Debora Juarez, who represents North Seattle, and Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, are reportedly both lobbying colleagues to serve as City Council President next year. Lorena González, the current council president, gave up her council seat to run for mayor, leaving the position open. The council selects its own president every two years, or when the seat becomes vacant because a council member leaves.

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. The job typically goes to a senior council member, but not every council member gets to be president; embattled Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who has served on the council longer than any other current member, has never held the role.

Over the years, council presidents have interpreted the job, which is not clearly defined in the city charter, in different ways; while some have used the position to delegate work to other council members based on their colleagues’ interests and expertise, others have used it to raise the profile of the council as a whole, serving as a diplomat to or adversary with the mayor’s office, depending on the issue (and the mayor). Council presidents have also tried, with varying degrees of success, to present the council as a united group with shared interests—a quasi-fiction that has been harder to maintain as the council has become more fractured.

Neither Juarez nor Herbold responded to requests for comment. However, earlier this week, more than a dozen Native American leaders issued statements supporting Juarez for council president—an unusual instance of lobbying for an internal council position

One of the letters, signed by the leaders of Chief Seattle Club, the Seattle Indian Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and other Seattle-based Native groups, praised Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, for her work securing funds to address urban Native homelessness, establishing the city’s first Indigenous Advisory Council, and working on behalf of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

3. A facility-wide COVID-19 outbreak at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County has left dozens of sick inmates in solitary confinement cells to quarantine. Although the state Department of Corrections announced in October that it would no longer use solitary confinement as a form of punishment, the department has repurposed the cells as quarantine facilities since the start of the pandemic. Continue reading “County Police Oversight Office Expands, Campaign for Council President Begins, State Still Using Solitary Confinement Cells for COVID Quarantine”

Vaccine Mandate Applies to Incarcerated Workers; Anti-Vax Conspiracy Theorist Runs for Hospital Board

1. According to a memo issued to all Washington Department of Corrections inmates last week, the state’s vaccine mandate does apply to some incarcerated workers. The memo clears up one point of confusion in a larger and ongoing debate about whether inmates qualify as state workers.

As of October 26, the DOC will require vaccinations for positions on Department of Natural Resources (DNR) work crews, Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) work crews, and for positions with Correctional Industries, the semi-autonomous business conglomerate run by the DOC, that involve working outside of the state’s 12 prisons. Any unvaccinated incarcerated workers have until December 13 to complete the vaccine regimen; for now, the DOC will not allow them to return to work.

The department is allowing incarcerated people to apply for medical or religious exemptions from the mandate. The DOC has not yet responded to PubliCola’s inquiries about the exemption process, nor have they specified how many workers are subject to the mandate.

Vaccination rates among people in DOC custody have slightly outstripped the state’s overall rate of 73 percent: more than three-quarters of all inmates are fully vaccinated. In mid-September, the vaccination rate for DOC staff was significantly lower—around 40 percent—and the department has begun the process of firing more than 300 staffers who refused to comply with the state’s mandate.

Despite the relatively high vaccination rate, COVID-19 infections remain a persistent problem in the DOC’s prisons and work release facilities. On Thursday, the department instituted a lockdown at the Cedar Creek Correctional Center near Centralia to contain an outbreak of the virus; meanwhile, the Clallam Bay Correctional Center on the Olympic Peninsula is still recovering from a dramatic surge in cases in late August and September.

Although the number of new vaccinations that will result from the mandate is still unknown, any increase in vaccinations among incarcerated people could become even more important as the DOC begins an effort to shift hundreds of inmates from prisons to work release facilities and home monitoring in the coming months. That project—a continuation of last year’s efforts to reduce prison populations in response to the pandemic—also involves adding bunks at the dozen work release centers around the state in anticipation of new arrivals; as those centers become more crowded, vaccination campaigns will become even more vital for the safety of people in custody.

2. Even if you vote faithfully in every election, you may not pay always make it to the bottom of the ballot, where the fire and rescue commissioners, sewer board members, and cemetery commissioners tend to languish. But maybe you should—especially if you live in Renton, where a anti-vax COVID denier who peddled election conspiracy theories and bragged about being in Washington, D.C. on January 6 is running for a position on the hospital board that oversees Valley Medical Center, in Washington.

Katie Bachand, a doula who graduated from the Seattle Midwifery School and Bastyr University, portrays herself in the King County  King County Voters’ Guide as a fiscally-minded reformer who wants to “return control of our Hospital District to the voters” and “stop the Trustees from taking your property taxes to fund whatever they deem to be necessary expenditures, including the salary of the CEO, without a vote from the Board of Commissioners!”

But in private social media posts, Bachand has promoted disinformation about COVID, including the “theory” that vaccinations cause the disease, promoted posts calling the pandemic itself a “psy-op,” not a pandemic”), referred to vaccine mandates as “Nazi[sm],” and promoted untested “cures” for COVID such as ivermectin, the much-mocked horse dewormer that the FDA has warned is not a treatment for COVID. In one September post, Bachand suggested that the government manufactured the COVID crisis to convince people to “accept a shot that changes our dna. This is all factual and from the Bible- no conspiracy theory ideas….”

As recently as August 21, Bachand encouraged nurses and other public employees to resist vaccine mandates in order to “win against tyranny”. Bachand also bragged about being in Washington, D.C. for former president Trump’s January 6th “Stop the Steal” rally claiming that “the truth is coming out that the F Bee Eye was behind it”—lingo meant to evade Facebook’s misinformation filters—and claimed in September that Joe Biden’s election should be decertified because “the audit showed over 57,000 fraudulent votes.”

Monique Taylor-Swan, Bachand’s opponent, is a certified home care aid and a board member of Service Employees International Union 775 with a long list of union and Democratic Party endorsements. According to the Progressive Voters Guide, Taylor-Swan wants to focus on “proper staffing and making pay more equitable between the highest-paid executives and underpaid nurses and staff” at Valley Medical.

—Paul Kiefer, Clara Coyote

New Report Finds Serious Shortfalls in Mental Health Care for Washington Prisoners

A cell (left) and recreation area (right) in the Intensive Management Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Photo: Office of the Corrections Ombuds)

By Paul Kiefer

A new report from Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) raises concerns with the consequences of a shortage of mental health staff and treatment options in the state’s prison system, including the increased risk of suicide, self-harm, or placement in solitary confinement for inmates with unmet mental health needs.

The report, which the OCO released on Wednesday, is based on a review of roughly 335 complaints about alleged shortcomings in the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) handling of mental health care, as well as interviews with incarcerated people and DOC staff and administrators.

In its review of mental health care options at state prisons, the OCO found that many problems hinged on the dearth of treatment providers available to the roughly 15,000 people in DOC custody. Facing overwhelming demand for mental health treatment and screenings, the DOC’s current providers handle overwhelming daily caseloads, sometimes without a designated work space to offer privacy to their patients. For people in custody, the shortage of treatment providers translates into long wait times for therapy appointments. Residents of the state’s 12 work release facilities, as well as inmates in some smaller prisons, have even fewer options for mental health care—in fact, the DOC doesn’t offer mental health treatment to work-release inmates at all.

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But the report also outlined other problems in the DOC’s response to the mental health needs of incarcerated people, including multiple instances in which prison staff did not properly document inmates’ risk of self-harm or suicide. The OCO has highlighted the same problems in earlier reports, including an April 2021 review of two deaths by suicide in DOC facilities last year that connected mishandled mental health screenings as a to both deaths.

The OCO’s review also raised concerns that prison staff rarely consider inmates’ mental health when punishing them for breaking rules. The investigators were particularly concerned about the use of so-called Intensive Management Units—solitary confinement—as a punishment for inmates with diagnosed mental health conditions, pointing out that placing those people in isolation can lead to “destructive or self-harming behaviors, often resulting in infractions and sanctions, causing time in solitary confinement to be repeatedly extended or increasingly harsh.” Continue reading “New Report Finds Serious Shortfalls in Mental Health Care for Washington Prisoners”

Investigation of Work Release Centers Spurs Some Changes, But Advocates Proceed with Caution

Washington Department of Corrections Work Release Center in Pioneer Square (Google Street View)

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.”

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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. Continue reading “Investigation of Work Release Centers Spurs Some Changes, But Advocates Proceed with Caution”

Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat

Entrance to the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Credit: Washington Department of Corrections)

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday morning, Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) staff covered part of a window at the entrance of the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County in an attempt to lower the heat inside on a day when outside temperatures peaked at 82 degrees.

But people incarcerated in the TRU say they spent the worst of the past week’s heat wave—including a high of 111 degrees in Monroe on Monday—in sweltering cells with no air conditioning and few chances to cool down, while prison staff had access to air-conditioned offices when temperatures rose into the triple digits.

The newly covered window, they said, was too little, too late. But few of those living in the unit are confident that prison administrators are planning ahead for another heat wave. “These are only going to get more common,” said David, a prisoner in the TRU who spoke with PubliCola on Wednesday. “And it’s pretty clear that [the DOC] won’t be prepared for the next one.” (PubliCola is using David’s first name only to reduce the risk of retaliation).

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According to DOC Communications Director Jacque Coe, only a handful of units in the state’s nine prisons west of the Cascades have air conditioning systems. All units in the three state prisons east of the Cascades are air-conditioned.

The temperature control systems in other units in western Washington vary from prison to prison, and even from unit to unit. At the Monroe complex, only the two units reserved for inmates with severe mental illnesses have air conditioning.

But the TRU—a unit that houses over 800 people, including some who are elderly or have chronic illnesses—is only outfitted with vents that pump air from the unit’s roof into common spaces and cells, as well as a pair of ceiling fans on both floors of the unit.

“When it got well into the triple digits,” David said, “all that system did was pump in hot air.” David, who suffers from a heart condition, added that he spent the weekend struggling to breathe and battling dizzy spells.

Another person incarcerated in the unit told PubliCola that temperatures in the TRU’s common areas rose above 100 degrees, in part because prison staff didn’t cover the skylights in the prison’s community room. In the cells on the second floor, residents claimed that temperatures reached over 110 degrees.

With indoor temperatures climbing, people living in the TRU struggled to find relief. DOC administrators loosened a handful of rules: Inmates were allowed to partially cover their cell windows and wear wet towels, and guards allowed people to spend up to an hour in two air-conditioned cafeterias before sending them back to their cells. (A kitchen was also available as a cooling station). On the prison yard, staff set up ‘misting stations’—small tents outfitted with sprinklers—where people could briefly find shade during their recreation time in the early afternoon.

But David and two other men incarcerated at the TRU said prison administrators could have done far more to keep prisoners healthy during the heat wave. One prisoner told his wife in an email that prison staff didn’t lower the temperature of the unit’s “scalding hot” showers to serve as a cooling station; instead, many of the men went without showers over the weekend. Others who spoke to PubliCola said guards restricted their access to the unit’s ice machine. Continue reading “Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat”