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:

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,


Richard “Dick” Morgan

Washington State Department of Corrections

360.725.8810 | rlmorgan@DOC1.WA.GOV

7345 Linderson Way SW, Tumwater, WA 98501-6504