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Washington DOC Illegally Penalizes Indigents

On December 24, 1998, Thurston county superior court judge Daniel Bershauer held that Washington prison officials had unlawfully converted an indigent prisoner's funds.

Roger Smith, a prisoner at the Airway Heights Correctional Center (AHCC), was indigent when he was sent $10. AHCC officials then seized $2 of that money to pay DOC debts Smith had previously incurred, even though this violated state law. Smith filed suit pro se, and the court issued a brief ruling granting judgment in his favor.

The court held:

"1. The Washington Department of Corrections is authorized by RCW 72.09.450(2) to collect debts owed them by inmates. However, they may so collect only when the inmate is not indigent pursuant to RCW 72.09.015(10) (less than $10 disposable income for 30 days.).

"2. Incoming inmate funds deducted before being deposited in the inmate's prison trust account pursuant to the mandatory 35% deductions in RCW 72.09.480 and RCW 72.09.111 (1)(a) are not disposable income for purposes of determining inmate indigency.

"3. When defendants took the $2 from plaintiff, he was indigent pursuant to RCW 72.09.015(10). Consequently, defendants took his money without lawful authority."

The court entered judgment as a matter of law in Smith's favor. As relief, the court awarded Smith $127. This breaks down to $2 for the unlawfully converted funds; $110 for the filing fee in the action and $15 for service of process fees.

The importance of this unpublished ruling, which the state did not appeal, is that indigent Washington prisoners have a remedy at law when the DOC unlawfully takes their money in violation of state statutes. As a practical matter, indigent Washington prisoners can receive $10 every 30 days which the DOC cannot seize for debt payments. See: Smith v. State of Washington, Thurston County Superior Court, Case No. 98-2-01666-1.

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Related legal case

Smith v. State of Washington