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Status of Reformatory Crowding Litigation

In 1981 prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe entered into a consent decree with the state over the issue of double celling. The original complaint, filed by Evergreen Legal Services for Reformatory prisoners back in 1978, alleged a number of constitutional violations flowing either directly or indirectly from overcrowding at the institution. Yet prisoners put aside many of the specific violations being alleged and settled for a consent decree that would, within a given number of years, result in single celling.

Before the ink was dry on the agreement the state was hard at work trying to sleaze out from under it. Implementation extensions were sought by the state and routinely granted by the courts. Finally, when the state had so many extra beds they rented out 200 of them to the feds and still refused to comply with the consent decree, Evergreen's Bob Stalker filed a motion that resulted in an order mandating single celling. That was several years ago, and ever since the Reformatory has been single bunked. During all of this period, over the years, the state has been in the courts trying to set aside the agreement they had entered into. Today I will try to bring you up-to-date on the status of their efforts in this regard, as well as to hazard a guess as to the ultimate outcome of this case.

The state has made three or four trips to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Only on their last trip did they succeed in obtaining a favorable order. They argued that the case was ripe for the entry of a final order, whereas the district court had held that the case would not be ripe until the remodeling process was complete (something that is supposed to be done in December). The appellate court remanded the case "with instructions to enter final judgment as contemplated by the consent decree." The appeals court went on to say that the decree mandates "the [lower] court's entry of a final judgement incorporating the terms contained in the decree." What is now being ruled on by the district court is the interpretation of the language contained in that decree.

All parties agree that the decree limits the population at the Reformatory to the number of single cells, something in the neighborhood of 656. The actual words of the applicable portion of the decree are fairly straight forward. It says the court will retain active jurisdiction over the case until the agreement is fully consummated (single celling has been achieved). "At the close of jurisdiction," the agreement states, "orders will enter making a final judgment incorporating the terms herein . Commitments made herein are binding on [all parties and their] successors, officers and agents." The terms of the decree to be incorporated into this "final judgement," are of course the singe celling provisions.

The wording of the agreement is pretty clear, but the state is arguing that it means something different. They claim that once the population reached the single cell capacity of the prison, the agreement should be thrown out and the state permitted to go back to overcrowding people at the Reformatory. In other words, the agreement does not require an order which makes the terms of the decree permanent, but rather the complete dismissal of the decree and all of its provisions.

What will the district court do? This is being written in September, and by the time we go to press these events may have already taken place. But if I were to venture a guess, I would say that the court will go along with the plain wording of the consent decree, i.e., that the population at the Reformatory will be limited by its single cell capacity. There could be some short-term double celling due to the remodeling, which has taken approximately 100 cells out of circulation, but once those cells were back on line we would return to single cells.

There is also a possibility that the court will accept the state's interpretation of the agreement and toss out the decree altogether. If this is done it will not be because of the wording of the decree. It will instead be because of the political situation that exists within the state and national governments. The feds want to get away from supervising state prison systems, and the state has prison population pressures it needs to ameliorate. These political pressures could result in a ruling that ignores both the wording of the agreement and the law. While I think that's unlikely, it's certainly possible.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this long and bitterly fought legal struggle, win or lose, there is a hero in this story. He's Robert Stalker, the attorney representing the interests of the prisoners. Stalker has waged a relentless battle against the attorney general's office. As mentioned earlier, the state has fought the consent decree on every allegation imaginable, often shifting issues and otherwise trying to obfuscate the courts. There are some attorneys who merely plod on, pleading after pleading, cranking out mediocre work. There are many of those who express occasional spurts of brilliance. What is unusual in Stalker's legal work is that it is as consistently brilliant as it is persistent. So regardless of how this case turns out, we at PLN send Bob Stalker a well deserved tip of the hat. He has earned our heartfelt appreciation.

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