Tag: work release

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

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”