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Washington Litigation Update

Access to the Courts: Prisoners at WCC, TRCC, MICC and WSP have filed suit concerning DOC policies, rules and practices which restrict their right of access to the courts. Scott v. Peterson , Case No. C92-5232B, filed in US District Court in Tacoma, is a consolidation of six individual cases initially filed by Pro Se prisoners. The court appointed Michael Gendler, a Seattle attorney, to represent the prisoners.

The suit contends that the Washington DOC has persisted in "continuing to dishonor all aspect's of prisoners' fundamental right of access to the courts." The complaint alleges that the law library hours at WCC, of 2.5 and 4 hours per day for day programmers is insufficient to allow for research. Prison officials there no longer allow prisoners to photocopy legal materials or to check books out of the law library. The WCC law library is not current nor kept complete. Washington DOC law libraries also have no facilities for audio or videotape viewing even though many superior court trials are now recorded on video which must be viewed by prisoners seeking to file pro se supplemental appeals.

The suit contends that Washington prisoners are denied the ability to make legal photocopies of their motions and exhibits without a court order. Prisoners in closed units such as IMU do not have law library access and are denied their right of access to the courts. Because the Washington DOC does not provide for all hygienic supplies, prisoners must choose between meeting their basic needs and buying the materials needed to exercise their right of access to the courts, i.e. pen, paper, envelopes, etc.

Prisoner law clerks receive no training and lack the skills and education to provide legal assistance. Prisoner law clerks are also prohibited from assisting prisoners in legal matters. The cost of photocopies, at 20¢ per page, far exceeds the cost of copies and chills plaintiff's exercise of their right to access the courts.

Prisoners who sue over prison conditions are routinely transferred in retaliation for exercising that right and some are physically threatened as well.

At TRCC officials deny prisoners the right to make unmonitored calls to legal counsel. They have also imposed improper limits on legal materials in retaliation and harassment of prisoners who file suit. The TRCC law library is also inadequate.

At McNeil Island annex the prison lacks a law librarian or other trained person, does not keep prison policies there and takes up to two weeks to obtain requested citations from the main prison law library three miles away. MICC officials also refuse to copy prisoners' pleadings absent a court order. They also debit prisoners' accounts for legal mail even though the prisoners are indigent. Prisoners in segregation at MICC are denied law library access and the assistance of persons trained in law. Prisoners are also denied access to their own legal materials and their legal mail is opened, delayed and refused.

At the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, prisoners in the MSU complex are denied access to an adequate law library. In order to use a law library they must undergo cumbersome and time consuming security measures which result in their being unable to use chairs or typewriters. Prisoners are denied the assistance of persons trained in the law and the law library lacks basic legal forms. Timely photocopying is also not provided to WSP prisoners. Indigent prisoners are forced to choose between buying essential hygiene supplies or legal supplies such as postage, copying, etc., to exercise their right of access to the courts. WSP prisoners are retaliated against for their litigation resulting in less favorable security classifications and housing.

The complaint notes that legal mail between the plaintiffs and their attorney has been opened, returned as undeliverable and otherwise been interfered with. Plaintiffs are routinely retaliated against and transferred for exercising their right of access to the courts and their legal materials then are "lost" or destroyed.

DOC policies are inconsistent, contradictory and insufficient to ensure adequate access to the courts. In particular, the DOC prohibits jailhouse lawyers from assisting other prisoners through the mails.

Health Care at Purdy: Hallett v. Payne , Case no. C93-5496TD is a class action suit filed on behalf of female prisoners at Purdy by Evergreen Legal Services. The suit contends that the DOC has failed to provide Purdy prisoners with adequate health care, to include medical, dental and mental health care. The suit contends women prisoners are not provided with the same or comparable health care as their male counterparts; that the health care system at Purdy is disorganized and it's staff inadequately trained and supervised; there are inadequate staff to provide needed health services; routine gynecological and dental care is not provided; non-physician staff override the professional judgement and medical orders of physicians in determining if prisoners receive off site care; medications are improperly dispensed; follow up care is often not provided; infirmary conditions are unclean and unsanitary; medical records are poorly kept and prison officials know of these problems yet have done nothing to correct them.

The five specific plaintiff's named in the complaint have suffered direct injury as a result of these conditions including not being seen by necessary specialists, being denied medical care, tests, etc. The suit also claims that the use of top bunks is a dangerous threat to prisoners who have fallen from them while having seizures and injured themselves.

The case has withstood a motion to dismiss by the state. Magistrate Wilson has recommended dismissal of the claim regarding the double bunks. The plaintiffs have objected.

Translation and Provision of Interpreters: This suit, Lopez v. Riveland , was originally filed by PLN editors Paul Wright and Ed Mead on behalf of Non-English Speaking Prisoners (NESPs) at WSR. In January, 1990 the Division of Prisons promulgated Policy 430.050 which mandated that DOP facilities issue all rules and policies in Spanish at the same time they were issued in English. To date, this has never been done. Administrative complaints were ignored.

The suit alleged that the denial of rules and policies to non-English speaking Hispanic prisoners violated their right of to due process and showed deliberate indifference to their safety. Attorneys at Evergreen Legal Services have taken on representation of the suit and have expanded it into a state wide class action suit to encompass all non-English speaking Hispanic prisoners, about 20% of the total DOC population.

The suit contends that the DOC does not provide NESP's with consistent translation in disciplinary, classification and ad seg hearings. There is no translation services for medical care which threatens their health. NESP's receive no formal orientation to prison life nor access to prison rules. There are no legal materials available in Spanish nor provision for translation of legal documents into Spanish. There is no material on emergency safety measures in Spanish. DOC libraries lack adequate general reading materials for Spanish speaking prisoners.

Given the large number of NESPs being imprisoned due to the "war on drugs", litigation requiring prison officials to provide materials in their native language is long overdue. There is no case law on this subject so the suit is a trend-setter in this regard. The suit is currently in the midst of settlement negotiations with the DOC.

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Related legal cases

Lopez v. Riveland

The settlement and complaint in the suit and other documents are available in the brief bank.

Hallet v. Payne

Scott v. Peterson