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Monroe Double Celling Suit Lost

By Ed Mead

In 1981 prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe entered into a judicially enforceable consent decree with their captors that would have permanently eliminated double celling at the prison. The original complaint, filed in 1978, challenged a number of prison conditions on constitutional grounds, especially the issue of double bunking. As the litigation slowly wound its way toward trial, the state elected not to test its position in court, and instead entered into a consent decree with prisoners. The decree contained a number of provisions, but central to the agreement was a promise to limit the number of prisoners confined at the Reformatory to the number of single cells at that facility. While it took the state until 1987 to finally comply with the promises it made in the consent decree, and then only when compelled to do so by a federal court order, the Reformatory has been single celled since.

No sooner had the ink dried on the agreement than the state initiated litigation trying to sleaze out from under the decree. Three trips to the Court of Appeals later, the district court has entered an order setting aside the decree. The magistrate's recommendation was that the state be bound by its promise, and the language of the decree was quite clear in this respect. It said that upon completion of the terms of the agreement the court was to enter an order making the terms of the consent decree permanent. But despite the unambiguous language of the decree, and the case law being in favor of prisoners, the district court bowed to the prevailing political mood and dissolved the agreement. It seems as if there is a shortage of prison bed space due to the get tough on crime atmosphere that's gripped state law makers and the ruling class media.

That the solemn word of the Department of Corrections is worthless will come as no surprise to most readers. What has surprised many Reformatory prisoners, however, is that the federal court would set aside a judicially enforceable agreement rather than compel the state to honor it. They do this in the name of not allowing the "court to govern the penitentiary by judicial decree."

Over three months havs passed since the district court's order and the Reformatory has not yet been subjected to double bunking. When it comes, and prisoners expect it will, it is expected to start slowly. After having repeatedly assured the courts that they would not violate the agreement if it was set aside, it would be in bad form for them to so quickly demonstrate their bad faith. Far better to wait a spell, and then to do it slowly while nobody is looking.

The attorney for the prisoners has initiated an appeal to the Court of Appeals, a process that will take from 18 to 24 months. We are not optimistic about the likelihood of success on appeal, though, as the appeals court is also bent on returning to the old "hands off" doctrine that governed the judiciary's approach to prison litigation for so long. We will continue to report any additional developments in connection with this case.

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