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Food Strike Puts Washington DOC on Spin Control

Prison food sucks. That's no big secret. And it should come as no surprise that for any given meal only a fraction of prisoners may bother to show up at the chow hall. Turkey A'la King? Good luck! But when 640 out of 700 prisoners fail to attend all three meals two days in a row it's gotta be more than a crappy menu.

That's what prison volunteer Linda Coleman tried to relate to newspaper reporters who contacted her for information about the July 20-21, 2000 food strike at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe.

Coleman, a participant in volunteer programs at the prison for three years, was the only person other than "official DOC sources" that Everett Herald reporters Warren Cornwall and Cathy Logg could find to comment on record about the strike. Prison administrators, of course, put their customary spin on the story.

"It's business as usual," WSR associate superintendent Willie Daigle told The Herald. "It's just that they're not eating," referring to the fact that (except for the food strike) there had been no disturbances or violence at the prison.

As to what caused the protest, Daigle portrayed the strike to the media as nothing more than a bunch of whining prisoners grumbling about trivial food items. And that's just how the Seattle Times led off their coverage:

"First, they took away the pancake syrup," wrote Times reporter Keiko Morris. "Then they cut back on eggs. Come August, milk will be served only at breakfast. And the word is pork will be the next to go. Disgruntled inmates at the Washington State Reformatory staged a two-day food strike this week, protesting... [the] prison cuisine."

But Ms. Coleman felt that prison officials were misleading the press by failing to mention that prisoners were frustrated by a host of other restrictions recently imposed on WSR prisoners that have nothing to do with the menu.

"I knew it was a lot more than that. If they were protesting, they were protesting for more than a couple of food items," she told The Herald. "I don't think it's any one thing. I think it's an accumulation of things that have occurred over the last six months.

The day after her comments were published, Coleman showed up at the prison to attend a Buddhist ceremony and was turned away by prison officials. Her access, she was told, had been suspended.

Prison superintendent Les Ryder said Coleman's published comments violated DOC rules about how employees and volunteers make public remarks.

"She is subject to the same rules and regulations as everybody else," Ryder told The Herald. "And that is, prior to releasing information to the public especially from inmates that needs to be reviewed first."

"I guess I should have kept my big mouth shut," Ms. Coleman told PLN. "It just really bothered me when I heard the response from DOC as to why there was a food strike. They made it sound like the prisoners were spoiled and being picky about a couple of menu changes," she said. "I just couldn't let that get printed without trying to point out some things that were wrong and other reasons why they were probably striking. I guess [the] DOC didn't like that I did that."

Ryder told The Herald that Coleman's comments indicated some association between her and strike leaders. She could be allowed back into the prison, he said, depending on what the investigation of who organized the strike reveals.

Coleman said she knew no details about the strike, including who organized it or when it was going to happen. She didn't even know the strike had started until she was contacted by the media, she said.

As far as the investigation, five WSR prisoners were shipped across state to the penitentiary at Walla Walla, Daigle told The Herald, because they harassed prisoners who attended meals during the strike.

Two other prisoners suspected of leading the strike were tossed in a segregation unit, and four DOC investigators were assigned to figure out who organized the protest, Ryder told The Herald.

Linda Coleman said she was never contacted by the investigators.

And the final word from prison officials to the press on the two-day food strike?

"The administration listened to their complaints," Lt. John Richards told The Herald. "And for right now it's over."

Sources: Everett Herald, Seattle Times

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