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Harsher Prison Measures Opposed: "Family Values" Stop Here

By Dan Tennenbaum and Davis Oldham

Seattle WA -- On March 20th, about 30 people braved a heavy downpour and strong winds to demonstrate against state Republican efforts to curtail prisoner rights. Friends and family members of prisoners, as well as prison activists, came to the King County Jail to protest proposed legislation that would severely restrict the Extended Family Visit [EFV] program, access to televisions and weightlifting equipment, and other "privileges" accorded prisoners.  

The main target was state House Bill 2010, known as "The Omnibus Prisoner Responsibility Act" an amalgamation of several smaller bills.  

The first thing HB 2010 calls for is full employment for all prisoners and a mandatory program to bring all prisoners to the same minimum educational level. Currently, however, there isnt enough work to keep all prisoners employed full-time. The work available often pays much less than minimum wage--as low as 25 cents an hour. As for education, some is available, but what is a lifer going to do when hes already got three A.A. degrees? Under HB 2010, prisoners who cant scrape together 40 hours of work or school will be disqualified from EFVs and from owning televisions. Cable TV will not be installed in any new facilities. Weightlifting will be restricted to prisoners who can join approved teams; these teams are small and wont exist at every prison. Basic rights, from name changes to health care, will be curtailed as well.  

What concerns protesters and prisoners the most is the proposed near-total elimination of EFV programs. Under these programs, eligible prisoners get to spend two days with famly members in a trailer on prison grounds. That EFVs are being targeted by the so-called "Family Values" crowd is just another of the many ironies in Newt-onian America.  

Lawmakers claims to the contrary notwithstanding, demonstrators argue--and prison officials confirm--that none of these programs are taxpayer funded. The money comes from the inmate-betterment fund, an account supplied by prisoner earnings, receipts from   prison-telephone services, vending machine and the like, or from prisoners own accounts.  

One demonstrator whose husband is a prisoner argued that the proposed limits on EFV violates the rights of people not accused of any crime--the families of prisoners. Spouses and children would not be allowed any contact with partners and parents outside the restrictive atmosphere of the visiting room. As one prisoners wife, herself a former prisoner, put it, "These visits let you cook meals, spend the night, have some quality time with your family. Theyre not just about conjugal activities [i.e., sex]." The visits also allow siblings, parents, and grand parents to spend time with prisoners. A woman hoping to marry a prisoner in June remarked that if Republican legislators have their way, the wedding will not take place. "I havent done anything wrong, yet I wont be able to get married. Why?"

 Protesters claim the programs keep families together and motivate prisoners to retain their social skills, without which they might be at a disadvantage upon release. "Its good for their health, physically and emotionally," one said.  

Many wardens and prison guards agree that "privileges" like TV, weights, and EFVs keep the lid on prisons and help prevent violence. The Department of Corrections opposed an earlier version of HB 2010 for just this reason.  

Prisoners at the Correctional Center for Women in Purdy staged a one-day strike Monday, March 20th to protest HB 2010, and a prisoner at the State Reformatory in Monroe was thrown in the hole for allegedly organizing a strike there. These incidents were peaceful, but desperate people can resort to violence. If you take away programs that help prisoners cope with prison life and retain social skills, one woman commented, "you might as well just lock them up for life."  

Why should criminals have these opportunities, whether or not theyre paid for by the state? The woman who hopes to get married next summer gave a telling response. "I used to think like that myself," she said. "Theyre criminals, they dont deserve anything--just put them on the chain gang." She paused, and then added, "It keeps them part of the human race."

-The Stranger, 4/5/95

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