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WSR Smoking Suit Settled

In 1991 prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, WA, filed suit challenging their forced exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS), AKA second hand smoke. On February 13, 1996, the suit was settled.

The essence of the settlement was that WSR would implement and enforce a no-smoking policy by declaring "B" unit, (a 158 cell unit in the 700 cell prison) a non-smoking unit. This included posting no smoking signs throughout the unit; infracting prisoners found smoking and transferring smokers out and non-smokers into the unit. The no smoking rule applies to staff, volunteers and guests as well as prisoners in the unit.

In the event B unit is closed longer than seven days the state agrees to make a "reasonable effort" to arrange alternative non smoking living arrangements for prisoners housed in the unit.

The settlement applies only to prisoners at WSR; prisoners transferred out of WSR have no enforceable rights under the agreement. The agreement does not prohibit any plaintiff in the case from initiating a new suit based upon a cause of action accruing after the termination of the suit. The suit did not receive class certification which means other WSR prisoners who weren't parties to the original suit are free to file suit on the issue for money damages they may have suffered.

The main shortcoming of the settlement is its brief life span. "Enforceability of Agreement. This agreement and all rights and responsibilities thereunder shall terminate one (1) year after the agreement is ratified by all parties hereto. In the event a violation of the terms of this agreement occurs during the first year following ratification by all parties, the plaintiffs shall be entitled to all available remedies for breach of this agreement, including specific performance; provided, however that any claim based upon breach of this agreement must be filed within one year of the alleged breach. Furthermore, WSR officials and staff shall be deemed to violate the terms of this settlement agreement relating to enforcement of the smoking policy in B unit only if they fail to take action against violators after having direct personal knowledge of a violation of the smoking policy."

Since the agreement expires on February 13, 1997, it remains to be seen if the state will continue to abide by it and maintain a non smoking living unit. In the event they don't, the litigation will have to start over. Given the trend among states to ban smoking in prisons this type of litigation may soon be obsolete. But for prisons that still expose non smokers to ETS this type of litigation will continue. Readers should note this is an unpublished settlement. See: Sindars v. Gardner, Case No. C91-1068R (WD WA).

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Related legal case

Sindars v. Gardner