Parole Legislation Update #2

It’s better than we could have wished for!  Senator Jeannie Darneille has introduced an excellent bill that would establish a Post Conviction Review Process for everyone who has served 15 years in prison, with possible release depending on a person’s behavior in prison. It also creates the board that would conduct the reviews by changing the name of the ISRB to the Post Conviction Review Board, moving it out of the DOC and into the governor’s office, and adding board members with expertise in rehabilitation and racial equity.

A hearing is scheduled THIS THURSDAY, Jan 31 at 1:30 in Hearing Room C of the Cherberg Building on the capitol campus in Olympia.Senator Darneille has requested written rather than oral testimony. Please email her right away and let her know why this bill is so badly needed and what it means to you personally.  Jeannie.Darneille@leg.wa.gov J.Darneille@leg.wa.gov IMPORTANT! 

(Correction January 30, 2019. A couple of people have commented that the original email address that we gave out for Ms. Darneille did not go through. Although Carol has used that address successfully in the past, we think it is best if people use the address from the official website, which is J.Darneille@leg.wa.gov   Kent James, webmaster for Prison Voice Washington)

To see a copy of the bill draft (no bill number yet) and a more detailed summary of the bill’s provisions, visit prisonvoicewa.org.

Carol Estes
Prison Voice Washington
206-276-9128

Parole Legislation Update #1

 We’re off to the strongest start ever, in a decade of work on the issue of sentence review. (Sentence review leading to the possibility of early release is essentially parole.) From what we’re hearing, the bills listed below are in the works. 

In the House:

Eric Pettigrew is the prime sponsor of a bill that will provide

  • sentence review with the possibility of release for all prisoners over age 50 who have served 20 years in prison.

EXCELLENT.

Noel Frame will either sponsor or line up a sponsor for a bill to provide

  • sentence review after 20 years for all prisoners convicted before age 25.

EXCELLENT.

In the Senate:

Jeannie Darneille will be the prime sponsor of a comprehensive bill that would provide, among other things,

  • sentence review for prisoners over 50 who have served over 20 years.

We don’t know yet whether it will include everyone.  We haven’t seen it yet, but we have HIGH HOPES.

Manka Dhingra is sponsoring a bill that would provide

  • sentence review for people over age 60 who have served 15 years in prison.  

Sen. Dhingra has said that she’s not wedded to this proposal but is using it to open a long overdue conversation about sentence review.  We applaud that intention, but this bill is UNACCEPTABLE for three reasons:  1) people who come to prison young would serve up to 42 years longer before review than older people; 2) 60 years is too old to begin a successful life outside prison; and 3) prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole are excluded.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT:

Right now, we are working with legislators to ensure two things.  First, that no group of prisoners is excluded from review in any of these bills.  Our mantra:  Review is for EVERYONE. Release is not.  Second, it is essential that people convicted as juveniles retain the “presumption of release” that is currently part of their sentence review system.

Later this week,we will have the bill numbers for you. We will also be working quickly to get as many legislators as possible to sign onto these bills as supporters.

After that,public hearings will be scheduled in both the House and the Senate. That’s when we’ll need you in Olympia!

If you’d like more comprehensive information on these issues or to see copies of the bills as they become available, go to prisonvoicewa.org.

DOC Food Services Newsletter Sept 2018 Publication No. 700-NE002

Prison Voice Washington has received concerns from those incarcerated under the Washington Department that DOC CI Food Services Newsletter Sept 2018 Publication No. 700-NE002, which was recently posted in living units for the incarcerated, contains a half-page article from DOH on carbohydrates but 2.5 pages of concerning material entitled “What is a Processed Food? You Might Be Surprised!” put out by an outfit called the International Food Information Council Foundation, which is a front group for a trade association of processed food manufacturers including Pepsi, Coke, Nestle, and so on. Many misleading statements in this article run directly contrary to the DOC’s duty, the DOH Healthy Nutrition Guidelines, and the state’s mission under Executive Order 13-06 to encourage Washingtonians to eat meals cooked from scratch and to ‘use less processed foods that do not contain added sugar and sodium’. Against that recommendation, this newsletter claims ‘that processing foods often makes them safer’, that ‘some processed foods may actually aid with weight management’, that ‘numerous processed foods could be considered “natural”‘, etc., all in the interest of supporting the contention that food processing ‘gives us an abundant, safe, convenient, affordable, and nutritious food supply.’
It is Prison Voice Washington’s understanding that this newsletter was intended to help incarcerated people make healthy choices. To address the misinformation that has already gone out, we encourage the Washington Department of Corrections and Correctional Industries to print and post a retraction article in all living units, acknowledging the fact that the International Food Information Council Foundation is a front group for processed-food manufacturers that attempts to promote consumption of their products, and that the September Food Services newsletter contained many misleading and dubious claims. We would like to see a new newsletter emphasizing that whole foods cooked from scratch are best, citing accurate public medical research that has repeatedly shown consumption of processed foods is linked to the obesity epidemic and a variety of preventable diseases, reiterating what the Healthy Nutrition Guidelines say about processed food, and advising the incarcerated to consume less processed foods that do not contain added sugar and sodium.

On the Need for a Toolkit for Families of the Incarcerated

Washington Appleseed recently unveiled their comprehensive Washington Reentry Guide for formerly incarcerated people. Now they are collaborating with members of Prison Voice Washington and the Statewide Family Council to build a similar toolkit for families surviving incarceration in Washington State. On September 25, 2018, I gave a speech at the Good Apple Luncheon on the needs of families of the incarcerated. The text of this speech is reproduced below.

Loretta Rafay, Angeline Thomas, Katherine Katcher, and Tarra Simmons at the Washington Appleseed Good Apple Luncheon. September 25, 2015

 

I’m Loretta Rafay, co-chair of the Statewide Family Council and policy researcher for Prison Voice Washington. My husband has been incarcerated for over twenty years, and I joined him on that journey three years ago. Also here with me today is my fellow Statewide Family Council member, Melody Simle, whose brother has been incarcerated for 10 years, and who will soon support her brother through the reentry process. As her family prepares for reentry, Melody thinks back to ten years’ of missed holidays and birthdays with her brother. Their family has felt a deep sense of loss during his absence. His incarceration has also been financially devastating for some of his family. On top of exorbitant attorney fees, his wife of twenty years, who had been a homemaker prior to his arrest, was thrown into utter poverty when he was incarcerated. His wife was middle-aged and had health issues that prevented her from driving the many hours to the prison to visit him. Outside of food stamps and meagre financial aid from DSHS, there were no resources to help her survive, and she relied on Melody and other family members for support. Ultimately, the marriage ended in divorce.

As Melody’s brother gets closer to release, their family prepares by setting aside money to repair his teeth and physical health after a decade of inadequate prison healthcare. They feel poorly equipped to support him in his emotional transition from prison into the Free World. In some ways, Melody’s brother is more fortunate than most because he has a family home to return to and will not encounter the housing barriers most experience during reentry. Yet even with a strong support network, he will struggle with the post traumatic stress associated with incarceration. His family might vacillate between empathy and impatience if he can’t function in the Free World. What if he gets depressed and just lies on the couch? What if he can’t seem to get back into a normal work schedule?

This sort of story is disturbingly common in Washington State. As families try to survive incarceration, they are left to sink or swim, both financially and emotionally. We’d like to thank Angeline and Washington Appleseed for acknowledging our struggles and offering to help. We’ve come here today to share with you what kind of support we need as our families survive incarceration.

There are around 20,000 incarcerated people in the Washington State prison system, and this doesn’t include those under federal or county jurisdictions. These thousands of people may be supported by a broad range of biological and chosen family members, if the stress of incarceration does not result in estrangement from family. As indisputable research shows, our prison visiting rooms are places where parents, siblings, spouses, cousins, children, and friends of the incarcerated help improve recidivism outcomes, one visit at a time, against all odds, and with minimal support.

Families of the incarcerated typically are not recognized as secondary victims when a crime occurs. The public is rarely sympathetic to their plight. Thus, families do time along with their incarcerated loved ones. Family members must also wear multiple hats to support their incarcerated loved ones. In addition to being breadwinners and emotional supports, they must spend countless hours every month on phone calls and emails to hold prison staff accountable for providing basic services and humane treatment. Without family support, incarcerated people are treated with apathy at best and contempt at worst, and are left to fall through the cracks in every possible way.

The emotional and financial burden of this secondary incarceration hits families hard. Imagine a mother and father who have driven from Everett all the way to Walla Walla to visit their incarcerated son. It is Christmas Day and they haven’t seen him for three months. They encounter snowstorms as they drive east, adding considerable time to their drive. They arrive at the prison three minutes past the last call for visiting check-in. The mother pleads with the prison staff to make an exception and let them process in late, but rules are rules, and the officer does not budge. There is no sign in the lobby informing the mother and father that this officer is of the lowest rank, and that visitors have the right to request intervention from a sergeant or lieutenant. All the parents see is the intimidating uniform worn by a person of authority. They walk out to their car with heavy hearts and drive back across the mountains.

The burdens of incarceration tend to fall the heaviest on women in the family. This is especially true in disproportionately impacted communities, which may be hit multiple times by incarceration, within and across generations, often leaving one female breadwinner to support an entire extended family. I know a mother who is raising both her grandchildren and her nephew’s children because incarceration has been the fate of more than one young man in her family. I know another woman who spends her entire weekend visiting at two different prisons that are a two-hour drive apart because both her son and her husband are incarcerated.

Supporting a loved one through incarceration is becoming a larger burden on men in the family as well. Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in our state, and it is no longer uncommon to hear of husbands becoming the primary nurturer for the entire family when their wives or daughters are incarcerated. Imagine a husband who is raising his two children alone. The youngest child, Marta, is seven and the oldest, Fabi, is nine. Their mother was arrested almost two years ago and for all that time they have only been able to visit her behind glass at the county jail. Now she has been sentenced and is housed at the women’s prison in Gig Harbor. When Fabi and Marta get to have their first contact visit with their mother, both girls want to sit on her lap and hug her tightly. However, Fabi is told that only her little sister can do so. Fabi, who has passed the cutoff age of eight, is now considered old enough to have to follow adult rules of affection in the visiting room. This is confusing and upsetting to Fabi, who now resents her little sister Marta for getting to share more affection with their mother during their three-hour visit.

Families of the incarcerated struggle with inhospitable prison visiting room environments that provide no sense of normalcy for family or marital relationships. We stand in long lines with other families to visit our loved ones and are pushed deeper and deeper into debt by private companies that contract with the Department of Corrections. These costs add up to thousands of dollars each year and can exacerbate the resentment families may find themselves feeling toward their incarcerated loved ones.

I know a woman in the peak of her youth whose husband is serving a lengthy sentence. He has no family other than her, and she has to be absolutely everything to him. She is his amateur paralegal when he files pro se petitions, and when her grad school peers go out on Friday nights, she has date night at the prison. She sleeps alone every night and stresses out on weekend mornings trying to find something to wear to the prison that complies with Puritanical dress codes but doesn’t make her feel completely ugly. When she arrives at the prison, the vending card loading machine eats her last twenty dollar bill and she has to borrow money from another visitor just to buy food for her husband. She feels somewhat happier when she enters the visiting room and sees his smiling face, but then a correctional officer walks by her table three different times to tell her she is holding hands with her husband at “the wrong angle.” She feels helpless, dissatisfied, and irritated, and a marital argument ensues with no privacy at all. She leaves visiting early in frustration, and when her husband tries to call her later to console her, they hear the recorded Global Tel Link voice saying, “Your AdvancePay account has a low balance. Please add funds now to accept more calls.”

For many incarcerated people, families are the only reentry plan. Yet support for families as they try to survive is lacking. The Department of Corrections Family Services Unit has six staff members to serve the families of 20,000 incarcerated people. Their work focuses primarily on children of the incarcerated, with few services for other types of family relationships. Families are unaware of what additional support might be available to them in the community. Where resources exist at all, they are fragmented and poorly advertised.

Families need a comprehensive toolkit that links them to resources, both during and after a loved one’s incarceration, to help them survive emotionally and financially. We are immensely grateful to Washington Appleseed for noticing our plight, and for taking tangible and meaningful steps to help alleviate our burdens by designing such a toolkit. We look forward to ongoing work with Angeline and all of you on this important area of need.

 

Ongoing Efforts to Transform Washington’s State Prison Food system

Prison Voice Washington has received many requests for interviews lately in light of the recent hunger strike at Washington State Penitentiary.  We thought this might be a good time to present a timeline of our work on Washington’s state prison food system, as well as a few updates.  Here is our chronological account:

• October 30, 2013 – Governor Jay Inslee signs Executive Order 13-06 requiring access to healthy foods in state agencies and institutions for employees and custodial populations

• February 2014 – Former Dietary Services Manager, Brent Carney, represents WA DOC in the Department of Health’s Food Procurement Workgroup to create and disseminate the Washington State DOH Healthy Nutrition Guidelines, which includes an Implementation Guide for Institutions 

• 2015 – DOC makes scheduled biennual revisions to internal food and beverage policies.  Although EO 13-06 required state agencies to adopt internal policies acknowledging the executive order by 2014, and although DOH provided a model policy template for institutions in 2014, DOC only adopted a new policy for their employee food and beverage policy, DOC 200.190. Meanwhile, as of April 23, 2018, policy DOC 240.100 and Attachment I Guidelines for Mainline Meals for incarcerated people still reflects no acknowledgement of the applicability of the order to custodial populations, despite having been revised in 2015.

• March 2016 – Prison Voice Policy Researcher Loretta Rafay meets with Brent Carney to discuss DOC’s food system. Carney gives Loretta handouts about EO 13-06 and discusses his involvement with the Food Procurement Workgroup on meals for the incarcerated, demonstrating his awareness of and involvement with EO 13-06 implementation.

• October 2016

Statewide Family Council members from four Washington prison facilities (WSP, WCCW, CCCC, and MCC) meet with Correctional Industries and Brent Carney to discuss the prison food system and present a list of recommended commissary foods and proposed action items to improve the prison food system.

Family members provide CI staff with Halloween pails containing the Prison Voice WA prison food report and healthy non-perishable foods families of the incarcerated would like to see added to prison commissaries.  After this meeting, Loretta Rafay begins working with the Department of Health, Brent Carney, and Correctional Industries to add some healthy non-perishable foods to the prison commissaries.  This working group makes meaningful progress and establishes a foundation for DOC and DOH to collaborate on prison food issues. (See summary notes and commissary product sales report .)

• November 2016 – Some prisons in Washington State begin replacing hot meals served to incarcerated people in visiting rooms with cold bagged Correctional Industries meals containing processed sugary foods (jelly, cookies) and potato chips, along with a small bag of carrots and a tiny apple.  Despite encouraging local facilities to provide hot meals to prisoners in visiting rooms in a December 2015 memo, then Assistant Secretary (now Secretary) Steve Sinclair wrote in an email to families of the incarcerated: “The reasoning had nothing to do with convenience or cost saving and was motivated [sic] a need to increase security practices to reduce contraband. Anytime we take something from outside (e.g. visiting) and move it back inside the secure perimeter it creates an avenue for folks to move contraband.”  (The puzzling rationale is why moving a hot meal in and out of a visiting room supposedly creates more contraband risk than moving a cold meal in and out.  And the meal is eaten so actually never moves back outside of the visiting room.  Any trash is disposed of in the visiting room garbage cans.  Moreover, all kinds of objects move in and out of the visiting rooms all the time.  Garbage cans, staff lunch boxes, vending machine carts, etc.)

•  May 2017 – An updated prison mainline menu analysis shows that DOC still is not compliant with required vegetable servings.  (As of April 23, 2018, these deficiencies are still about the same.  DOC is also only providing prisoners with one serving of powdered milk per day when the DOH Healthy Nutrition Guidelines require three.)

•  July 17, 2017 – Moldy carrots found in a Correctional Industries cold bagged meal served to a prisoner in the Washington State Reformatory visiting room.  Loretta Rafay received permission from the WSRU visiting Lieutenant to take the carrots to DOC leadership at a Statewide Family Council meeting the following day.  Notice the white liquid created by the mold that has pooled in the bottom of the package.

•  July 27, 2017 -DOC’s internal ombudsman, Carlos Lugo, responds via mail to an ombuds request filed by prisoner Atif Rafay concerning DOC’s failure both to update DOC 240.100 and to fully comply with EO 13-06. In this letter Lugo concludes that DOC is in violation of EO 13-06, but “failed to understand that it was obligated to apply the order to meals for incarcerated individuals.” As part of the investigation process for this ombuds complaint, Lugo interviewed Brent Carney and Correctional Industries food procurement staff, and surely must have been told about DOC’s documented participation in the Food Procurement Workgroup.

• April 11, 2018 – DOC leadership posts a memo in prison living units at Washington State Penitentiary in response to prisoner hunger strikes.   This memo states that DOC will begin providing hot oatmeal and milk cartons at breakfast.  It fails to truly acknowledge DOC non-compliance with Executive Order 13-06.  It also claims that the current Correctional Industries factory food model provides more nutritious food than DOC’s locally sourced fresh scratch-cooked meals provided over a decade ago.

• April 23, 2018 – A Prison Voice interview with a Washington State prisoner reveals that ten years ago Washington prisoners received unprocessed chicken, salmon, and open salad bar access at meals.  Unlimited milk was provided at breakfast.  This nutritious diet supported the mental health stability that makes prisons safer for both the incarcerated and the staff that monitor them.

The latest news from DOC headquarters is that over the next two years, all facilities will gradually eliminate breakfast boats and return to hot breakfasts served in dining areas. Monroe Correctional Complex will be the next facility to make this change, according to Assistant Secretary Robert Herzog. DOC has to make major changes to staff scheduling to go back to the old (and healthier) system. We will post additional updates as we have more information.

 

 

Updates on Prison Voice Efforts to Improve WA’s Prison Food System

It has been several months since Prison Voice Washington released its report on food policy in Washington prisons. In that time, we have had some success, though much more needs to be done. Prison Voice members and the incarcerated have worked with DOC’s Statewide Family Council, DOC’s dietician, Correctional Industries, DOC’s internal ombudsman, and Washington’s Department of Health on the following:

  1. Creation of an ongoing commissary working group that has thus far added over ten new healthy food items to Washington State prison commissaries.
  2. Establishing a concrete timeline for DOC to update its policies governing mainline and closed loop meals for the incarcerated to reflect a duty to comply with Executive Order 13-06.
  3. Establishing a 2018 deadline for compliance with Executive Order 13-06. However, Correctional Industries has stated that DOC will need to appeal to the legislature for supplementary budget allocations before full compliance can be achieved.
  4. Improving the vegetable offerings in mainline and closed loop meals, though more needs to be done for DOC to be in full compliance with Executive Order 13-06.

Are you a prison reform advocate outside of Washington state who would like to do some work on your state’s prison food system? Here are some tips to help you in your valiant uphill battle:

  • Federal case law on prison food standards is abysmal. Thus, you may have more success looking to your state laws and state Department of Health for legitimacy and support. Find out exactly which Department of Health staff and governor’s policy advisors work on state nutrition and food policies and call or email them. Find out what state executive orders, state legislation, and nutrition guidelines have been passed/established in your state, and cite key language from these documents in letters to your Department of Corrections, legislators, governor’s policy advisors, etc. You may also wish to cite language from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as well as USDA nutrition standards, including the USDA Smart Snacks guidelines for public schools. The public school food system faces some of the same challenges that our prison systems face, and can be a good source of ideas for how to address systemic problems.
  • Get contact information for the dietician of your state’s Department of Corrections. Request more information and a meeting with that person.
  • Put in a public records request with your Department of Corrections to obtain prison meal menus, food ingredient labels, order forms listing commissary and food package offerings, etc. This sort of documentation is helpful to have when discussing concerns with legislators or writing reports like ours on your state’s prison food system.
  • Does your state’s Department of Corrections have a Correctional Industries that runs the prison food system? If so, request a meeting with the CI staff in charge of making food purchasing decisions. If possible, request that someone from your Department of Health attend the meeting as well, and request that a collaborative working group be established with representatives from DOH, DOC, and prison reform advocates.
  • If you are the family member of an incarcerated person, find out if your state’s Department of Corrections has a Family Services Unit or a Family Council that can help you communicate with DOC on this issue. If your state’s DOC does not offer a family council, look to the Family Council policies of Washington and California’s prison system, and get help from your DOC’s Family Services Unit in establishing a Family Council. Family Councils get to meet with high level DOC administrators and can do some meaningful work with DOC on important issues. Be persistent, and don’t be afraid to communicate higher and higher up the DOC chain of command on this issue.
  • Contact expert nutritionists at universities and colleges in your state and ask for their help in advocating for improved prison nutrition standards.
  • Network with state and national food policy advocacy groups
  • Research efforts to link local farms with various public food programs in your state

Check back here for future updates on the work we are doing in Washington state!

Religious Freedom is Precarious in Prison

Religious Freedom is Precarious in Prison

Where powerful human authority of one person over another exists, religious freedom can be precarious.  The prison system is exactly the kind of place where an organizational mission of safety can tempt authorities to overstep the boundary of religious freedom.  A recent post to Stone City Blog points up how seemingly minor points of restriction are in fact violations of the constitutional protection for religious practice.

Listen to Mike Hoover, a Klamath tribe member and Pipe Carrier, currently residing at the Washington State Penitentiary:

Our Sweat Lodge is the only place we can go within these iron houses where we’re free to engage each other in a meaningful way and to practice the old ways of our faith.

Recently our lode came under attack by administration and custody for not being as bucolic as they felt it should be. Various members of the circle were called out to the lodge and dressed down by an associate superintendent. Topics discussed: Weeds, water being offered to the fire, an unauthorized garden, water left running, urinating, placing retired rock elders around the mound and path leading from the mound to the fire. (spirit trail).

The administration permits use of the Sweat Lodge for 8 hours at a time but does not permit bathroom breaks, and then complains when Lodge members relieve themselves on their sacred earth however they can.  The restrictions on placement of rocks and the flow of smoke threaten exercise of tribal religion.  Mr. Hoover is forced to oppose prison (human) authority out of respect for the higher authority of their religion:

I refused to participate in desecrating the mound. I feel that DOC wants to sterilize and dilute our religion, our way of life. Everything we do at lodge has a meaning and there is a reason for it. If we don’t keep the old ways we are lost. But how can we continue to walk the red road to healing, spiritual growth, and rehabilitation when DOC places so many detours and road blocks along our path?

We who are outside would do well to advocate against these infringements inside the prison system.  They are symptomatic of a thread of disrespect which all too easily escalates to denial of religious freedom.

Full test of blog post by Mr. Hoover is at: https://stonecityblog.com/category/michael-hoover/

WA Sentencing Reform Needs Reform – Testimony by Carol Estes

Sentencing: The View from the Inside

 

Carol Estes, director of Prison Voice WA, testified before a Washington State Public Safety Committee hearing on sentencing on January 10, 2017.  This is the full text of her presentation.

 

I’m extremely honored to speak today. I’m not a paid professional within the criminal justice system. What I can offer you is my experience. During the last 17 years I’ve been inside the prisons weekly, teaching classes and working with literally hundreds of Washington prisoners—all men. Eleven years ago I cofounded one of the nation’s only independent prison college programs, University Beyond Bars (UBB), which now has about 240 students in two prisons in the Monroe complex.

 

I have also had experience on the victim side of things. I have been the victim of a home invasion; a best friend’s son, whom we used to babysit for, was murdered; my sister’s daughter was raped and became pregnant; and my ex-husband was arrested for molesting a child. I have been around the block.

 

I believe that we now have an opportunity that we cannot afford to pass up. Thirty-five years ago, we gave up on rehabilitation. In response to the work of sociologist Robert Martinson, who famously and wrongly wrote that “nothing works” in rehabilitating prisoners (1974), Washington passed the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA)(1981). The legislature’s intent was clear. The purpose of the act is punishment.

 

We have done well at punishing. But this new SRA system was supposed to do other things as well.

 

  • It was supposed to shorten many sentences and “make frugal use of the state’s and local governments’ resources.” Has it done that?

 

Sentences have lengthened enormously, partly through the three strikes law passed in 1993 and the Hard Time for Hard Crime law (via Initiative 159 – 1995) that produced the so-called sentence “enhancements.” Prior to the SRA, all prisoners serving life were reviewed after 20 years, or 13 years with good behavior. Average time served was between 15 and 20 years. Today we have 2,500 people in our prisons serving sentences they probably won’t live to complete. And today the average Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentence* is 39 years and costs the state $2,457,264. Before the SRA, a life sentence with parole cost taxpayers $1.8 million less per prisoner than the LWOPs imposed today. (*I am referring both to people whose sentences exceed their lifespan and those who actually received a Life Without Parole sentence.)

 

  • The SRA was supposed to eliminate sentencing inequities and promote proportionality: Did it?

 

Today, 39% of prisoners serving LWOP sentences are serving them for non-homicide convictions, and 40% of all LWOP sentences include weapons enhancements. And if prisoners choose to exercise their constitutional right to go to trial, they receive a longer sentence, and sometimes a much longer sentence. Here’s one such story:

 

The actual shooter in this case received thirteen and a half years. His co-conspirator, who was not the shooter, was offered a plea of 180 months if he would testify against others. He went to trial instead and was convicted of first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, and six counts of first degree assault with gun enhancements on all counts, equaling 1,660 months.

 

This is an extreme example, but I can tell you that crazy inequities in sentences are not at all unusual. You need to know about them. Who is responsible for these discrepancies? How will you even find out about them? What we citizens want is not revenge but basic fairness.

 

  • The SRA was supposed to decrease the racism in the system. Currently we have almost six times as many African Americans in our prison as we should if they were incarcerated at the same rate as whites. And even though African Americans make up only about 4% of the Washington population, 28% of those serving LWOP are black.

 

  • The big selling point for the SRA, though, was “truth in sentencing.” That powerful but misleading slogan implied that the pre-SRA sentencing system was untruthful simply because we had parole, and a prisoner’s release date depended on his or her behavior in prison. A prisoner had to earn an early release. There’s nothing untruthful about that. Nevertheless, the SRA did away with parole, opting for the “truth” of definite release dates instead.

 

You may be interested in knowing what the long-term prisoners themselves say about this. “The biggest risk to public safety is a single release date.” When you come to prison, “you’re just parked there,” they say. “You just shut down. And you just try to keep breathing until your release date comes.”

 

“I really wish I had not had a specific release date when I came in on my second strike,” one prisoner told me. There’s a big difference between just breathing and earning release.

 

Another prisoner pointed out that “They have no idea at sentencing how you will behave in prison. The decision about release should be made 5-10 years down the road.” That’s exactly what we did before the SRA.

 

As you think about public safety, perhaps you should ask the Department of Corrections (DOC) to tell you how many high violent/high risk to re-offend prisoners are automatically released each year because their release date has arrived? And how many low violent/low risk to re-offend prisoners are kept in prison indefinitely because, without a parole system, we have no way to release them?

 

I understand that the legislature has committed to evidence-based policy. Here are some of the research findings we didn’t have in 1984 that should be incorporated into our system if we’re serious about evidence-based policy

  • About 39 percent of state prisoners don’t need to be in prison because they’re not a threat to public safety. This is huge. Imagine the cost savings from a 39% reduction in the prison population.
  • Lots of things work. Especially education, cognitive therapy, addiction and anger management therapy, and assistance with housing.
  • Long sentences are actually less effective (and more expensive) than short sentences.
  • Juvenile brain development isn’t complete until age 25. What that means is that young men are biologically programmed to take risks without thinking of consequences. It’s the reason the army military wants young men, and why car rental companies charge extra to young men. Because young men thrive on risk.
  • Age is the most important predictor of recidivism. People over 55 have a recidivism rate of 2%, compared to 34% for prisoners under 25. In other words, they cost $100-150,000 to incarcerate but are 17 times less likely to reoffend.
  • 80% of the people in prison suffer from some kind of mental illness. Our mental health system desperately needs some of the money we’re wasting on prisons
  • So do our schools.

 

What has to happen before we are willing to take a comprehensive look at the expensive system that we’ve created over the last 35 years?

 

The Sentencing Guidelines Commission (SGC) is obligated by law to assess the performance of the SRA system every 10 years, but they haven’t done it lately.

 

But an SGC assessment is not enough. The SGC is made up almost entirely of people in the legal profession—judges, prosecutors, defenders—and is now headed by a career prosecutor (Russ Hauge). Certainly they are important stakeholders in the sentencing system, but they are not the only stakeholders, or, I would argue, even the most important stakeholders.

 

If we want new ideas and current research and the possibility of significant change, we must turn to people from outside the current system: criminologists, educators, sociologists, social workers, psychiatrists—and most importantly, former prisoners, prisoners’ family members and the voices of current prisoners. We need more than statistics. All of us need to bring our knowledge and experience to bear on this hugely expensive and ultimately solvable problem: How can we get a much better success rate from our corrections and sentencing system, and at the same time vastly improve our education system and the mental health systems?

 

The solutions are out there. In fact, we already know much of what needs to happen. We also know that more tweaking of the SRA won’t do it. I’m asking you, on behalf of all the people inside our prisons and their families and those of us paying for the current system to appoint a dynamite task force and assign them a big task.

 

 

NOTE:  The source for most of the facts in this paper is “Life Without Parole Sentences in Washington State,” by Blagg, et al., Law Societies and Justice Program, May 2015.

A Complicated Life

Tom Jacobs has served for several years on the Washington Corrections Center for Women Local Family Council, and recently retired from representing his local council at the Washington Department of Corrections Statewide Family Council.  As his wife nears her release date, he is thinking back to what her incarceration has meant for him, his family, and the holiday season.

It’s another Holiday Season where families gather about with spirits of great joy. There is the smell of a turkey or ham emanating from the oven while the chatter of relatives and friends greeting each other comes from the front door. It is not the same warm greeting in every home, though, because in some family members won’t be together for years.

We watch the news each evening of someone being assaulted, a store or home broken into, or a car hitting a pedestrian in the street, and begin to think the worst of the people who would do these things. We follow them through the courts and soon they are sentenced to 3, 5, or whatever number of years and  thank God, one more criminal off the streets.

That’s fine if it ended there but it never  does. We seem to forget the families that are waiting outside of the prison walls and the hardships and grief they must be going through over the next several years. This is a subject that I know something about because I have lived through it for the past seven and a half years.

I would like to think that we were a normal family; we raised three wonderful children, were very active in community affairs, donated to the food bank, belonged to the PTA, and were involved in all the kids’ activities. Our children were all grown up and had homes of their own, while I, being retired, was thinking about enjoying my pastime, fishing.

It came as a surprise to me when the police knocked on our door one evening and asked to talk to my wife. She went up to the police station and a few hours later returned home to tell me that she has been arrested for stealing from the company where she worked. While the district attorney investigated the crime, it took two years before she finally had her day in court. Friends that we had in our neighborhood for thirty years who had promised to be by our side and support us through this ordeal no longer called on us. I had lost the use of my leg a couple years before and could no longer take care of our home on my own, so we sold the house to cover court costs and to lower our cost of living.

To avoid family embarrassment for the kids’ sake, my wife went into court and pleaded guilty and took her punishment as the court deemed fit. It shocked me when the judge sentenced her to seven and a half years because I had seen on the news where prominent individuals had stolen millions of dollars but served nowhere near this much time, and where murder convictions would get less time.

The first time I went to the prison to visit my wife, I felt a lot of apprehension because this was a whole new world to me. I did not know what to expect. As I walked through the front door a gentleman came up to me and said he was on the Family Council and was there to help me in any way he could. Explaining the rules of what was allowed in visiting, he showed me where to sign in and lock up my valuables.  We were not allowed to bring cash into the institution but they did have machines for purchasing drinks and snacks. He showed me how to put my money in a machine to obtain a canteen card which we could use to purchase snacks. He then escorted me over to security check-in and explained the procedure for removing our jackets, belts and shoes before walking through the metal detector. The guards would check each item for contraband before handing them back to us. There were several other people already in a holding area as I put my belt, shoes and jacket back on.

Eventually a guard came in and escorted the group to the visiting room, which was about fifty yards away in another building. There was a gate between us and the building and we had to wait before a buzzer sounded and the gate lock opened up to let us  through. I remember looking up at the high fence surrounding us and the concertina wire on top and along the bottom, and how sensitive it made me feel. The group came to a halt at the  closed entrance of the building and we waited for another buzzer to unlock that door. When the buzzer sounded,  we all filed in before the door slammed shut behind us with what I considered to be an ominous sound. But we weren’t in yet because in front of us was another door, where we had to wait for another buzzer  to sound before we could go through. When we finally entered the visiting room, two guards sitting at a table checked us in and assigned each of us to a table to visit with our loved ones.

Each weekend I would visit my wife and would be greeted at the door by a Family Council member.  I soon realized that they too were individuals with a friend or family member incarcerated. It didn’t take me long to become familiar with the routine of checking in, and as we waited to be escorted I would talk to other people waiting in line.  From this I learned a lot about the unspoken hardships they acquired when their family members ran afoul of the law. Some had to travel from hundreds of miles away—even from  out of state—to see their daughter or wife, and had little money to cover expenses.

An elderly lady came up from Oregon with her unemployed son and stayed at a cheap motel on South Tacoma way so she could visit her daughter. Her son looked for work and never seemed to pay that much attention to his mother, but would drive her over whenever he could and pick her up later when he felt like it. One day he didn’t show up to take her home and I told her that I would pick her up and bring her over each weekend because I passed her motel each time I came over. One day she said her daughter was getting out Monday so she wouldn’t need a ride anymore. Her daughter did get out Monday but the mother had passed away the Sunday before.

I learned more and more about the Family Council and all the good they did to help individuals who came to visit, and soon realized that I wanted to be part of that group. In order to address  the numerous problems that came up within the prison system locally and statewide , the Department of Corrections established and maintained Family Councils at each institution to advise, collaborate, and problem solve in partnership with the Department and the community.

I signed up for the local Family Council and was accepted.   For the next seven years I was able to help others coming in to the prison for the first time.  Eventually, after four years, I was asked to represent the local Family Council at the Statewide Family Council level.

At Statewide Family Council, we discussed, reviewed and even presented different programs to help families and inmates bond closer together to cut back on recidivism.

Whenever you think of an individual being incarcerated, also think of their families and the hardships that they have to endure, not only emotionally, but physically and financially, due to no fault of their own. Extend a hand to help not only the inmates who have served their time upon their release so they endeavor to remain free, but also to the families to work through their hardships.

My time is ending soon when my wife gets out on January fourth and we are together again permanently. It might be a belated Christmas for us but one we will celebrate in a family way.

Tom Jacobs

 

Washington’s DOC Ends the Use of the Word “Offender”

 Dick Morgan, Secretary of Washington Department of Corrections
Dick Morgan, Secretary of Washington Department of Corrections

Yesterday (11/2/2016), Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan sent out the below email to all DOC staff, marking the official end of the use of the word “offender”.  DOC had already eliminated this word on its website a few months back (hence the many broken links now one encounters when Googling certain phrases from the old DOC website).  This is a HUGE moment for incarcerated people, their families, and the community groups that serve them.  Since the inception of the Statewide Family Council almost a decade ago, families of Washington’s incarcerated have been pushing DOC to end the official and verbal use of this word.  Prison Voice Washington hopes this shift in terminology marks a shift in attitude as well: our incarcerated people are not offensive, and should not be labeled or treated as such.  We applaud Secretary Morgan for taking what may be the first step in changing the  mass incarceration attitude in Washington state.

Good afternoon –

The Washington Department of Corrections is phasing out the use of the word “offender.” The Department switched from ‘inmate’ to ‘offender’ in the early 2000’s as a more general term to describe the men and women in our care and custody whether they were assigned to a prison, work release, or supervised in the field.

As a technical term describing the people for whom we are legally responsible, the word “offender” worked.  It worked so well that it is embedded in nearly every policy, document, or system associated with our Department.  However, the word “offender” has also contributed significantly to some unintended consequences.  The word ‘offender’ has become a label that we apply to people and in our case, the people for which we are charged to provide services and everything associated with them.  Unfortunately, what starts out as a technical term, used to generically describe the people in our care, becomes and is enforced as a stereotype.  As a stereotype, “offender” is a label that impacts more than the person to whom it is applied.  This label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as “offender families” and “offender employers or services.”

This is not a malicious act on the part of our Department or the public, but the term “offender” does have a negative connotation and significantly impacts a broad group of people and communities.  This is something we can address.  When I started work in corrections the term “resident” had been adopted to replace “convict” and “inmate.”  Inmate was reinstituted in the early 80’s to be followed by “offender.” Times change, and so does our language.

Effective November 1, 2016, we will be phasing out the word “offender.”  This will take some time to fully accomplish, but you will begin to see the word “offender” replaced with “individuals” or other applicable terms such as “student” or “patient” where/when appropriate.  Policies and other documents will be modified as they come up for review.  We have many systems and proprietary tools that use the word “offender” and those will take much longer to address, but we need to start somewhere.  It takes time to change habits but I encourage all of you to make an effort.  Start by referring to individuals by their names (if you don’t already), practice replacing or removing the word ‘offender’ from your communication and presentations to others.  Most importantly, take this as an opportunity to help others define themselves not for their criminal behavior, but for their future role in their communities.    

Thank you for your efforts,

Dick

Richard “Dick” Morgan

Washington State Department of Corrections

360.725.8810 | rlmorgan@DOC1.WA.GOV

7345 Linderson Way SW, Tumwater, WA 98501-6504