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. Continue reading “Closure of King County’s Only Work Release for Women Raises Gender Equity Questions”