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A Zoo Within a Prison

On April 18, 1998, a fleet of buses, trucks, and police cruisers rolled up to the SCC's subterranean asylum. It was moving day.

Washington sex offenders have continually been snared by the civil commitment process since 1990. Because only one has been deemed "cured" of the mental abnormality which consigned them to the SCC, the program needed room to grow.

There were SWAT teams, strip searches, and police vehicles at checkpoints all the way down to the SCC's new home on McNeil Island. It was strictly a DOC show. And that makes it hard to swallow the legal fiction that SCC residents are "mental patients," not prisoners; that they are detained for "treatment," not punishment; in a program administered by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), not the DOC.

The SCC was originally located in one wing of the DOC's Special Offender Center (a maximum-security prison for the state's mentally ill prisoners). The SCC wing, though attached to a prison, was administered by DSHS. However, because of the physical layout of this prison and the nature of its mission, it was somewhat easier to maintain the "treatment facility") fiction.

That is no longer the case. The SCC is housed within McNeil Island Correction Center (MICC), a mainline prison filled not with mentally-ill prisoners but with so-called convicts.

The tiny yard they have at their disposal has no grass. It is a fenced-in compound with several mounds of dirt they can stand on, after being escorted there by SCC staff and DOC guards. The view is of the Big Yard, where the convicts stand and gawk back.

That is not all the prisoners do. Since prisoners can walk without escort (unlike SCC residents, who are escorted everywhere they go), the prisoners walk up to the windows of the SCC unit and flip-off the residents, press their faces to the windows and make obscene or threatening gestures.

The SCC residents eat in the prison chow hall, but hastily so they can clear out before the prisoners eat. Therefore, mealtimes are: breakfast at 5:30am; lunch, 11:00am; and dinner, 4:00pm. SCC residents are scheduled to use the prison's barber shop, law library, library, gym, hobby shop, music room, sweat lodge, etc. in the brief periods during which prisoners are locked up for counts. In some cases these facilities are closed to prisoners during other periods so SCC residents can use them.

To the MICC prisoners, the SCC is at the very least an inconvenience. The disruption to their routines does little to endear them to SCC residents. Furthermore, the prison has developed a "zero tolerance" policy toward prisoner harassment of SCC residents, which naturally has the effect of actually hardening the prisoners' negative feelings toward the intruders of their domain.

SCC residents share the same visiting room with prisoners and their visitors. They are strip-searched by DOC guards after every visit, something they didn't have to endure before. Their visitors are set aside in a cordoned-off section of the prison visiting room. The same prison administration that enforces the "zero tolerance" policy warns its prisoners and their visitors to keep a close eye on their children due to the danger posed by the "sexual predators".

The SCC residents used to have open phones. They could accept incoming calls as well as make outgoing calls, and none of those calls were monitored or recorded (remember, they are not "prisoners"). At MICC, they are forced to use the "Inmate Telephone System," which is not only more intrusive, but much more expensive.

SCC residents who "act out" are thrown into the prison's hole, which is euphemistically referred to as an "Administrative Behavior Modification Review" by the SCC.

These new conditions of confinement, as well as a litany of SCC treatment failures and abuses will be reviewed in an October 1998 hearing before Judge Dwyer, who has taken senior status since issuing a 1994 injunction ordering the SCC to conform to constitutional standards of confinement and treatment. Dwyer has promised that "the SCC will be constitutional before I leave the bench."

It will be interesting to see what the court's reaction will be to the SCC's new location. For now, more than ever, it remains nearly impossible to examine the SCC without reaching the conclusion that it bears little resemblance to a "treatment facility' for people suffering from a "mental abnormality" who have been civilly (not criminally) committed for treatment (not punishment). Rather, the SCC now resembles a prison within a prison. Or, perhaps, a zoo within a prison.

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