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Magistrate Recommends Continued Single Celling at Reformatory

There has been a long and bitterly fought struggle by prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory to enforce a consent decree mandating single celling.

The consent decree is a product of a 1978 civil rights complaint filed by Evergreen Legal Services. The suit raised a number of issues relating to conditions at the Reformatory, one of which was the mandatory double bunking then being practiced.

In 1981 a consent decree was entered into between prisoners and prison officials that would limit the population to the prison's single cell capacity. Shortly after the suit had been settled, however, the state filed litigation aimed at killing the single celling provision. In response to these efforts the federal district court held that WSR officials were contractually bound to the agreement, and this holding was upheld by the U.S. court of Appeals.

The state next implemented a series of dilatory tactics to keep form ending the two men to a cell still being practiced. They'd go in to court pleading one emergency situation after another. Finally they had so much unused cell space they entered into the rent-a-cell business with the federal government and other states, farming out some 200 WSR beds rather than honoring the formal agreement they had entered into.

WSR prisoners filed a demand in the court that the consent decree be enforced. This was won, but not until after much addition[al] litigation, including another trip to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Today Reformatory prisoners are single celled, although they have not been too secure in that arrangement. The state had once again sought to overturn the agreement and prisoners were not certain as to how it would turn out. Today the outcome is all but certain.

On October 16, 1990, the U.S. magistrate in Seattle issued a recommendation rejecting the various claims advanced by state prison officials. These recommendations will go in front of Judge Rothstein, who will almost certainly sign them into law. The state will of course appeal, but their efforts should once again end in failure.

For all practical purposes the case is over and done with. The state has shot its wad. Their next legal moves will not be part of a live controversy, but rather a form of rigor mortis associated with a dead litigation.

While the struggle on the legal front is all over but the shouting, prisoners should expect the state to continue fighting on other fronts. The move to enforce the consent decree was nearly not filed because prisoners-leaders voted not to question mandatory double bunking. It was only when the votes of the club heads were publicly posted that they finally voted in accordance with the wishes of the population. Only the Black Prisoners' Caucus consistently voted against mandatory double bunking, the other had to be shamed into it.

The state's next ploy may be a bit less heavy handed. Instead of mandatory double bunking they will come with a gift in one hand and a club in the other. They will be asking for just a few cells, for your comfort. But a little bit of double bunking is like being a little bit pregnant - there is no such thing!

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Related legal case

Collins v. Thompson