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State Moves to Lift Federal Court Order at Washington State Penitentiary

by David Fathi

The State of Washington has filed a motion to vacate a long-standing federal court order in Hoptowit v. Ray, which governs conditions at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. Whether the state succeeds will depend largely on whether the court finds that constitutional violations at the Penitentiary have been corrected, and are not likely to recur.

History of the Lawsuit

In 1979, after a guard was killed, resulting in a long lockdown and a report by the American Correctional Association (ACA) finding that the prison was out of control, 15 prisoners at the Penitentiary filed a class action lawsuit in federal court, charging that conditions at the Penitentiary violated the Constitution. After trial, the court found numerous unconstitutional conditions, including overcrowding, violence by both prisoners and guards, inadequate medical care, and unsafe physical facilities. The court issued an order to the state to correct these conditions.

The state twice appealed the court's decision to the federal court of appeals. See Hoptowit v. Ray, 682 F.2d 1237 (9th Cir. 1982), and Hoptowit v. Spellman, 753 F.2d 779 (9th Cir. 1985). However, most of the court's order was eventually upheld by the court of appeals, and the order remains in place, requiring the state to provide certain conditions of confinement at the Penitentiary.

The State's Motion to Vacate

On May 16, 1996, the state filed a motion to vacate the federal court order in Hoptowit, and dismiss the case. The state argued that it had long been in compliance with the order and with the Constitution, so the order was no longer necessary and should be lifted. The United States Supreme Court has said that a federal court order can be vacated when the defendant (in this case, the state) has complied with that order and with the Constitution for a reasonable period of time, and is unlikely to begin violating the Constitution again. Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 247-50 (1991).

In support of its motion, the state submitted a lengthy report by George M. Camp, a prison consultant from New York. Mr. Camp's report concluded that conditions at the Penitentiary had improved "vastly," and that the Hoptowit order should therefore be lifted.

However, Mr. Camp's report also found several problems at the Penitentiary, including: 1) Inadequate sick call in segregation; staff deliberately conduct sick call while most prisoners are still asleep. 2) Use of sick call facilities and procedures that do not provide adequate privacy or sanitary facilities. 3) The Penitentiary had no dentist at all for approximately ten months. There is a three to four-month backlog of dental work. 4) No out-of-cell exercise for prisoners in isolation. 5) Sanitation in the dining areas "was sub-par on each of the many occasions that it was observed." 6) Violation of American Correctional Association (ACA) standards with respect to crowding and minimum space per prisoner. Also, Mr. Camp last visited the Penitentiary in June of 1994, so his report is now more than two years out of date.

The lawyers for the prisoners have responded to the state's motion, asking the court to allow their prison expert to inspect the Penitentiary. The prisoners' lawyers say that, since the state is claiming that conditions at the Penitentiary are now constitutional, the prisoners must be allowed to have their own expert inspect the Penitentiary and see if this is true. The court has not yet ruled on the prisoners' request, or on the state's motion to vacate the order.

[Editor's Note: On October 16, 1996, Judge Nielsen granted the defendants' motion to reopen the file in Hoptowit but reserved ruling on their motion to vacate the permanent injunction and dismiss the action. The court granted the plaintiffs' motion to allow their expert to tour the WSP for a two day period to determine if WSP was in compliance with the terms of the permanent injunction. The inspection was to take place within thirty days of the order and a written report must be submitted to the court and defendants within thirty days of the inspection. The defendants were given thirty days after that to respond to the plaintiffs' report.

'If the evidence revealed by the plaintiffs' inspection of the WSP indicates that Defendants' assertions of compliance with the permanent injuction are contested, the court will consider setting this matter for a hearing with oral argument and the possibility of a limited evidentiary hearing confined to the testimony of the parties' expert witnesses."

David Fathi is staff counsel with Columbia Legal Services in Seattle. He represents the plaintiff class in Hoptowit. PLN will report developments in the case as they occur.]

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Related legal case

Hoptowit v. Ray