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Overcrowding and Violence in Washington State

Back in 1985 I wrote an article predicting the future impact of Washington State's then recently adopted Sentencing Reform Act (SRA). The article noted that there would be an initial drop in prison populations, followed by a rapid increase until population levels were once again beyond what could be reasonably tolerated. The piece went on to note that because of the SRA's focus on violent offenders, the people making up these increases will largely be young men from minority communities in urban areas of the state. This was because the poorest and most oppressed segments of society are the most desperate, and thus more likely to employ violence during the commission of an offense. Indeed, how many young ghetto residents have the option of committing nice clean crimes such as the recent savings and loan swindle? Whereas the pre-SRA sentencing system was racist by virtue of the individual prejudices of judges and paroling authorities, the racism of the present system is more rooted in the economic inequalities of capitalism. Given this mix of prisons overcrowded with young minorities, the article said, the future for prison stability will be bleak and short lived. This analysis has withstood the test of time. It is coming true with vengeance.

The percentage of offenders who are sentenced to state prison has increased every year since the implementation of the SRA, as has the average length of prison sentences. Like other states who have adopted SRA-type (determinate) sentencing structures, Washington's legislature has increased the guideline ranges every year since the SRA's enactment. This summer our prison population reached 10,000 prisoners, that is more than three times the number of prisoners confined in an already overcrowded system when I was convicted (1976). The state's top prison boss recently announced that Washington's prisons are 167 percent above capacity, which is the highest rate in the country. On July 16th he issued a "declaration of emergency" so as to spend non-existent moneys in order to bring additional prison beds on line. But this is merely a stop-gap measure that will only address the tip of the iceberg. Prisoners at Shelton's R-Units will still be sleeping three deep (one man on the floor) in a cell designed for a single man. The incidence of violence on the inside will continue to increase as well.

In referring to this month's (September) killing of a Black prisoner at McNeil Island, the newspapers say "Crowding...a factor in brawls, says prison chief." And when discussing aspects of the current race for governor the headlines proclaim "Governor candidates struggle with crime, prison overcrowding." This "struggle" takes the same old form of packing more prisoners into already crowded cells and building ever more prisons. Neither the prisoncrats nor the candidates are addressing the real issues. As a result of this both the prison population and the crime rate continues to grow. At a cost of up to $40,000 a year, embittered prisoners are eventually released, as 98 percent of us are, to vent their rage on the community. This anger gets taken out on wives, children, neighbors, and anyone else who has the unfortunate luck to get in the way of this typical product of the state's "corrections" system. Not only are taxpayers being ripped off by this expensive fraud, they are far less secure in their homes and on the streets. Yet the pretense of fighting crime through increasing prison populations will continue, despite its proven irrelevance to the crime rate.

Today only one state prison remains uncrowded; that's the Reformatory at Monroe. This is because prisoners have waged a relentless 12-year battle against efforts to double them up. The forum through which struggle was waged has been, and continues to be, the federal courts. How long Reformatory prisoners can hold out on the judicial front is an open question, as an adverse ruling could come down at any time. But fighting it out on the courts isn't a realistic option in most situations. The law has changed to our disadvantage. It seems that only when there is both struggle against overcrowding and a high body count will the courts stoop to intervene and moderate the situation. If the objective of reducing the population of the state's prisons can be accomplished without the traditional high prisoner body count required by the courts and others in power, then I for one vote that it be tried.

As for naive notions of relying on human decency or compassion of our captors as the means to change these terrible conditions, that too is a dead end option. They simply are not guided by external principles when making decisions on what is right or wrong in terms of handling those entrusted to their care. It's only when they encounter resistance, from inside or out, or their management system otherwise breaks down, do they sincerely look for even temporary solutions (beyond figuring out ways of locking ever more people up).

Interestingly enough, as an aside, there is the case of a labor dispute involving the British Prison Officers Association (POA) back in 1980-81. This English equivalent of the guard's union took on the Home Office (akin to our DOC) over the issue of overcrowding. They refused to accept new prisoners into their prisons. This action lasted for four months and resulted in 8,000 prisoners being diverted by the POA. The courts were forced to back away from their use of custodial sentences. According to FRFI , a British Marxist publication (reviewed recently by PLN ), "in this respect the POA achieved more in four months than the entire prison reform movement has achieved in forty years!" While such a possibility is unlikely here in the U.S., stranger things have happened. Incidently, the POA later allowed the prison population to increase to pre-protest levels. The gains were only temporary. Any lasting progress must be defended by the masses of prisoners and their loved ones.

The Reformatory's struggle is currently in the courts. Other prisons will have to resist overcrowding through different forms. One thing is clear, violence is not a viable tactic in this arena. They have all the guns. If prisoners sincerely wish to ease the crowding they will have to develop a conscious plan for doing so, and then implement it on a statewide basis. The alternative, the cost of doing nothing, is living with an increase in the existing levels of violence. More rapes, fights, stabbings, killings, and a general environment of fear and intimidation. The creative development of peaceful approaches to this problem is the subject advanced prisoners should be discussing with each other today.

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