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Behind Closed Doors: Struggle in Washington IMU's

In the "Intensive Management Unit" at the state prison in Shelton, WA a man who looks to be in his 50s is wearing an orange plastic rain jacket and pacing the parameter of the "yard." The yard is really just a 30-by-40-foot cement room with metal screen for a ceiling, but it's the only break most IMU prisoners get from the 23 to 24 hours a day spent alone in tiny cells. This man, with his wild graying hair and empty eyes, looks like the caged zoo animals whose mental state makes people shy away.

There are 124 cells and six yards in the Shelton IMU, one of three high-security units in the state. And as our entourage of two guards, the assistant to the warden, and me makes its way through this clamped-down atmosphere, rows of men peer out through the long, thin windows of their cells. Some put their hands against the safety glass and call out. One screams, "Help me!"

The Department of Corrections calls IMUs "prisons within prisons"--extremely restrictive units housing prisoners deemed unfit for "general population." Some have committed violence against other prisoners or guards. Some are guilty of strings of small infractions or are isolated for their own protection. Still others have mental health problems and wind up in IMUs by default. Since Shelton, Washington's most overcrowded prison with over 1,800 of the state's 13,642 prisoners, often has to squeeze three men into a one-man cell, tensions send some prisoners into the IMU.

The unit at Shelton is in good order today. A lunch cart rolls quietly from one steel door to the next, serving each man his plastic tray through a little opening called a "cuff port." Between September and November 1997, however, the unit was in turmoil. Prisoners acting in concert stuffed clothing into their toilets so that water ran out under cell doors. They set fires, broke lighting fixtures, and kicked telephones off the walls. Some fashioned crude weapons by breaking off small metal sink spigots and putting them in socks, using them to wreak more destruction. Prisoners assaulted guards with their feces and urine. Five guards were injured during the period, including one who was stabbed. While most of the damage was done inside cells, a number of prisoners managed to get out onto walkways and wreak more havoc. One climbed through a cuff port, another broke out of a shower.

In January, 1998, similar flooding, glass breakage, and cell destruction was visited on the IMU at the state prison in Clallam Bay. And in March, 1998, there was rioting at Walla Walla, both in the IMU and among the general population. Officials estimate that up to 30 prisoners were involved in some way at Shelton, six at Clallam Bay, and 15 at the Walla Walla IMU, though prisoners figure the overall number a bit higher. The DOC estimates damage at $100,000--with an additional $500,000 needed to retrofit cells so as to prevent an encore.

"I don't know to what extent the IMUs are safe," says Marty Wyckoff, an assistant attorney general who represents the DOC in legal matters. "We thought we had the safest and most secure IMUs in the nation and for the last 10 to 25 years they have been relatively trouble-free. But as of late, things have been rock-and-roll weird."

Officials at the three prisons chalk the rioting up, in part, to younger prisoners with extra-long sentences and something to prove. "Basically, the inmates involved in this have always been problem inmates and this was something for them to do," says Clallam Bay spokesperson Patricia Woolcock. "I think some of them do it just to show they can."

But prisoners say their actions were designed to send a message--that they're not going to put up with what they consider poor conditions. First of all, they say, a 1995 law, HB 2010, has made life miserable. The bill established that at least 35 percent of any money earned by or sent to an prisoner would be skimmed off for victim restitution, cost of incarceration, and prisoner savings accounts; that every prisoner would have to pay a monthly fee for television (this is particularly galling to IMU prisoners, as most of them are denied access to TV), and pay for visits to medical staff, educational and vocational programs, and recreational equipment.

The changes hit IMU prisoners particularly hard since they have no way to earn money and are afforded fewer amenities than other prisoners to begin with. "I think we are getting the attitude we have because we just don't care anymore," says Shaun Freitas, who was recently transferred from both the Clallam Bay and Shelton IMUs. "We don't got nothing to lose."

Prisoners cite other recent changes for the worse in detailing why they are resorting to riot. There are the new DOC restrictions on sexually explicit materials, including letters--their lifeline to the outside world, to wives and girlfriends. Shelton IMU resident Mark LaRue says one fellow prisoner rampaged after a series of letters from his girlfriend were rejected by prison gatekeepers. "He just decided he wasn't going to take it anymore," LaRue says. The prisoner managed to break through rusted ceiling mesh in a shower, climb over the metal shower door, and make his way onto a tier. He had acquired a long piece of metal along the way. "When the guards ran to the door acting like they were going to come in," LaRue says, "he banged the bar on the railing and told them `If you come in you're going to need more than you got now.' They had guns and there were six or seven of them. They didn't come in, and everybody started to cheer."

Officers gathered from all over the prison and eventually subdued the prisoner, says Shelton superintendent Jim Blodgett--but not before the prisoner climbed through a hole he had carved in the ceiling and broke some water pipes, unleashing a torrent in the IMU.

Prisoners say tensions are exacerbated by the disrespect they face from guards. Prisoners from all three institutions complain that officers take out hangovers and grudges on them, sometimes "skipping" them for meals, showers, and the all-important yard time. "The officers had attitudes," says Freitas of his prior stint at the Clallam Bay IMU. "You ask them a question and they would say, `Fuck you, punk.' They would skip your meals. Let's say you asked for something earlier in the day, like toilet paper. They wouldn't give it to you or would wait until the end of the day. Dinner would come and you would ask, what happened to my toilet paper? And the guard would say, `Oh, you don't want to eat?' And take your meal away."

The slights sometimes turn into full-blown incidents of brutality, according to prisoners. One man, recalls Shelton IMU prisoner Larry Frisby, was sent to yard later than scheduled and was upset about it. When he finally got out there, he took off his clothes as a challenge to the guards and refused to come in. "He was completely unarmed," recalls Frisby. "They got their goon squads, opened up the cuff port and shot this riot gun through as he was backing away. They shot rubber or plastic bullets at him. He was 30 feet away when they shot him and busted his head open. He was bleeding all down his chest. The guys on the tier saw that and they were all just like, `Jesus Christ, that was unreal.' We were pissed that that happened."

Blodgett does recall that "in this time period we had a number of people in the yard who said they would not come in." In one case, he recalls that officers did use a "less than lethal device that shoots a projectile. If we can use that stuff rather than banging their heads, that's a good thing." But as for complaints about disrespect and skipped meals, Blodgett takes a somewhat exasperated tone. IMU prisoners are very abusive and difficult to deal with, he says. "Anything they have in their cells, they will lunge out through the cuff ports at guards when they're serving meals. They throw feces and urine on the staff. There are inmates whose whole objective is to kill an officer." He admits that a prisoner may be denied a meal if he's not standing far enough from the cuff port when it's opened. "If they are not behind the line, they don't get their meal. We don't want people working there who only give the inmate a second to get to the line and walk away, but sometimes that happens. Then the inmates make a huge deal about it. If the inmate would have followed the rules, he would have gotten his meal."

While spokespeople from Clallam Bay and Walla Walla deny that officers at those locations engage in any unprofessional behavior, Blodgett says that at Shelton "it takes a special staff member to work in [the IMU] because they are taking verbal abuse. Some do have more conflicts with inmates. We have staff that get in trouble every once in awhile because they do say things back. But we try to weed out those we think will be problematic. Occasionally a certain number of people lose their perspective over there. But I don't know what to do about that."

Prisoners think they know what to do about it. They've banded together, communicating with each other through sign language, to plan these rounds of destruction. "We're pulling together on this because it's the only way we can get anything done," says Shane Clark, an prisoner recently transferred from the Walla Walla IMU. "If we start getting some respect and get things done right, things will calm down. Until then, we aren't going to give them the time of day."

If some of their complaints seem petty, consider that each IMU prisoner's "house" consists of a 6-by-16-foot cell, painted white and often lit around the clock, containing a small metal sink, a small metal toilet, a writing surface, a metal bunk with a mattress on it, one tiny window facing into the prison and one facing out at a fence and barbed wire. The prisoners are allowed only minimal personal effects: soap, toothpaste, a small amount of paperwork, religious materials, up to four books and five photographs, and a few other items.

"I think that people don't really understand why a prisoner would get upset about not getting something we would consider a small thing on the outside like not getting lunch on time," says John Midgley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a law office that represents poor people. "When you are in a situation like that, you are totally dependent on other people. When you ask for things, if they don't get them for you, you can't get them for yourself. What if you had a medical problem and asked to see a doctor, but nobody ever showed up or didn't show up for days? These things are magnified for people who are incarcerated."

IMUs actually create psychological problems, which are most acute in the mentally ill housed there. According to University of Washington School of Nursing professor David G. Allen, "If you have somebody who is already vulnerable to mental illness and you put them in that environment, it can exacerbate it so that they have a full-blown psychosis." Studies done at the UW show that mentally ill prisoners make up 18.7 percent of the state's prison population but account for 41 percent of rules violations, which result in transfers to an IMU. Even for those without pre-existing mental conditions, the isolation and lack of human contact cause severe problems--including, says Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, hyper-responsivity to smells and sounds, perceptual disturbances, loss of ability to think, lack of concentration, loss of memory, anxiety, agitation, and even paranoia.

Since the spate of rioting, prison officials have cut back prisoners' yard time and showers, and placed new restrictions on reading materials, personal property, and items available from the prison commissary. The more troublesome the prisoner, the more severe the restrictions: Some are left without clothing, mattresses, blankets, or hot food for days at a time. Shelton officials went so far as to set up a special unit--called A-tier--where, says Blodgett, "we put them on sack lunches. They think it's punishment, but it was because they were throwing trays. Mattresses, clothing, blankets--if they destroyed them or used them for destructive purposes, they lost them. We try not to look at it as punishment. We look at it as management."

At first the additional restrictions on A-tier backfired. "About six days into that program," says Frisby, "most of us decided we had had it. We were emaciated. We snapped. We could not handle it anymore. We got the spigots off our sinks and did it all again. We destroyed this tier. There was water and glass everywhere. We broke out all our lights." But officers did something unexpected. "They stood us out on the tier, swept it out and put us back in the cells," says Frisby. "That kind of broke some of us. They put us back in with no water because we broke the faucets. We had no lights because we broke the lights. And we were naked and in shackles and on two sack lunches a day. Even when we didn't have anything to work with, we did what we could to ruin those cells. That is not frivolous gripes. That's a reaction to something real serious."

To some extent, prison officials face a catch-22. As the legislature passes laws turning correctional institutions into mere facilities for punishment by cutting programs and recreational outlets, and as younger and younger offenders walk through the door facing longer and longer sentences, it becomes more difficult to keep prisoners occupied and out of trouble. "It's hard on us," says Blodgett. "What incentive can we offer?" So the DOC, lacking carrots, opts for the stick by creating more and more IMUs (the latest to come on line is a new 43-bed unit about to open at the state prison on McNeil Island).

"The taxpayers wanted it to be this way so they are making all these changes," says Clark. "But the changes just made things worse. Totally worse. Look what's going on. There's all the rioting at the Walla Walla IMU. All the fighting at all the IMUs. We're going to turn out like the prisons in Texas, California, and New York, as far as violence goes, if things keep up."

Clark wonders whether people realize that almost 98 percent of prisoners are scheduled for release at some point, and that those who've experience the worst conditions will be the most troublesome. Adds Freitas, "If you treat people like wild animals, what are we going to do when we get out on the streets? I'm not learning nothing up in here. I just get more angry."

On March 25 and 26, 1998, CBCC prisoners Donald Snook, Kenneth Smith and Jacob Schmitt were charged in Clallam County superior court with felony malicious mischief. The charges arise from the three prisoners destroying their IMU cells. The three prisoners are accused of causing $7,000 in damages to their IMU cells.

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Seattle Weekly .]

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