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Conditions of Confinement: Washington State Prisoner Sues Over Twelve Harsh Days in Strip Cell

In the early morning hours of February 2, 1998, at Clallam Bay Correctional Center (CBCC), Washington State prisoner Sylvester Mahone felt like he had had enough. Locked up in isolation in one of Washington State's six Intensive Management Units (IMUs)the kind of bare-bones, supermax concrete isolation cells increasingly common in state and federal prisonsMahone was infuriated that a guard had spit in his food during the dinner shift.

Mahone complained immediately to the IMU booth guard as his anger mounted. Alone and isolated from the rest of the prison population, Mahone began to jump up and down on the middle of his bed, which was itself attached to a concrete partition. A big man at 6'1", Mahone managed to break the cell partition, and then used a piece of rebar from that partition to break out the small back and front windows of his isolation cell.

Mahone has admitted his actions, both through his lawyer and in a Washington court deposition earlier this year. And while Mahone's actions are not in dispute, the 12 days that ensued have raised renewed questions about the general treatment of prisoners in supermax isolation cells.

A lawsuit filed against the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) and the State of Washington last year alleges that Mahone was left naked and without adequate food, water or other essentials for an extended period of time in a CBCC "strip cell."

Tacoma attorney Stone Grissom of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson & Daheim L.L.S., explains that the decision on the part of the IMU guards to leave Mahone in a strip cell for 12 days not only violated his right to due process, but that it also constituted a form of cruel and unwarranted punishment for Mahone's uncharacteristic outburst.

Mahone was denied access to clothing, bedding, toilet paper, exercise, hot food, and only limited opportunities for drinking water and bathing. At one point, a half-blanket ordered by a prison nurse to cover Mahone's numbing feet was removed by prison guards after the nurse left his cell.

"It was extreme torture," says Grissom, in reference to the fact that Mahone spent the first three days in the strip cell completely naked, sleeping on a cold, concrete floor in the middle of winter.

Grissom is seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting the punitive use of strip cells, as well as compensatory damages for physical and emotional distress suffered by Mahone.

"[Mahone] is angry and outraged at what's gone on. This has had a lasting effect on him. And what makes this case so horrible is that there's no defense to it," Grissom stressed. "[The defendants] are so smirky about their actions ... they think that what they did was completely justified, which makes me think that there is a continuum of abusive behavior that other inmates are being subjected to."

In a brief phone interview from the Washington State Penitentiary to which he was recently transferred, Mahone, a 29-year-old African American man incarcerated on an attempted murder charge, indicated that he was only one of many to have endured similar kinds of abuses in IMU and strip cell settings.

Through his lawyer, Mahone likened the experience of being left in the strip cellnaked and in the middle of winterto going into one's own garage in the middle of winter, cracking open one of the windows, taking off one's clothes and lying on a concrete floor: "You realize that there's no place to go, no way to lie down to be warm, no way to warm your feet, your body, there's nothing but the freezing cold."

The Washington Department of Corrections declined to discuss the specifics of the case, citing a policy of not granting interviews about pending litigation.

CBCC IMU Custody Unit Supervisor Tom DeLong emphasized that stays in strip cells are always contingent on a prisoner's behavior. "We have to protect the inmate and everybody in the institution ... it's a difficult balance."

DeLong added that confinement of a prisoner to a strip cell is carefully considered, and that such confinement is reviewed both daily and weekly to ensure release from the strip cell when the prisoner is no longer a threat to himself or to those around him.

Part of the justification for the extended strip cell lock-up appears to have been the fact that several other prisoners began to smash their cells after Mahone was extracted from his cell, and that the guards in charge seem to have put the blame for those acts on Mahone.

In a court declaration filed with the U.S. District Court Western District of Washington at Tacoma, CBCC Associate Superintendent Kathy Kaatz explains that her decision to authorize the extension of Mahone's confinement in the strip cell stems from the fact that he "remained defiant." According to Kaatz, who was a Correctional Program Manager at the CBCC IMU when Mahone was placed in the strip cell, Mahone's defiance took the form of the filing of an emergency grievance (regarding the cold temperature of the cell) which was deemed to be "non-emergent."

"Inmates are aware that emergency grievances are for life threatening situations and are not to be filed over temperature issues," stated Kaatz in her declaration. "Although Inmate Mahone had remained quiet, I was still concerned about the extreme destructiveness he had manifested and his mask of compliance," said Kaatz. "I was not ready to have Inmate Mahone move about the IMU for recreation and showers and possibly spark another riot. Six IMU cells had been rendered unusable. These high cost cells are needed to house dangerous inmates."

A cell extraction video obtained by this reporter makes clear what subsequent depositions of DOC employees have reiterated: once removed from his cell, Mahone was completely compliant, allowing himself to be cuffed, escorted out of the IMU pod, stripped of clothing, and placed in a cell without incident.

On video tape, Sgt. Bradley Hatt _ who assembled the cell extraction team _ states the following: "Mahone was compliant and cuffed up and no force was necessary to remove him from the cell."

Footage from the tape also demonstrates that while other prisoners in the IMU were yelling and screaming at the sight of Mahone being escorted, Mahone stayed quiet and even respectful toward the guards maneuvering him from place to place.

Other prisoners are also subsequently shown being extracted from their cells. In one case, guards use OC spray to force the prisoner to comply, leaving him gagging, drooling and retching as he is dragged out backwards from his IMU cell, before being hosed off and laid on his stomach on a concrete floor.

"That wasn't cool, man. That cat was cuffin' up, man," says a prisoner in an adjacent cell when he witnesses the extraction using OC spray.

At no point _ in the video or in court depositions _ does it appear that Mahone ever exhorted or encouraged other prisoners to cause destruction to their cells.

But in the CBCC form identifying the reason for why Mahone was placed in the strip cell, Sgt. Steve Brooks states that the "inmate took part in riotus behaivor [sic] in E-Unit."

In examining the circumstances of this case, nationally respected correctional consultant Thomas A. Rosazza (author of the Jail Inspection Manual for the National Institute of Corrections and a trainer for the American Correctional Association as well as the American Jail Association) came to his own conclusions about the events that transpired in that near-two-week period: "Clallam Bay staff did not have adequate or sufficient justification to extend Mr. Mahone's conditions of confinement and that Mr. Mahone's behavior was in no way related to the punishment imposed."

In his written statement, Rosazza stated, in no uncertain terms, that it was his opinion that staff violated certain policy, procedure, and correctional practices in ordering and extending Mahone's conditions of confinement.

"His condition of confinement was as stark as it could be ... It is my opinion that the use of the strip cell required a burden of justification which staff did not meet in this case. In the absence of such justification, the use of the strip cell ... was arbitrary at best and was punishment at worst," wrote Rosazza in his declaration.

Washington Administrative Code (WAC) and DOC directives expressly prohibit lowering the quantity or nutritional value of food, or the deprivation of clothing, bedding or normal hygienic materialswhen used as disciplinary measures. [See e.g.: WAC 137_28_370.] Yet in practice, critics have charged, officials have been doing this for at least a decade.

In one case in 1999 (previously reported in PLN ), prisoner Rodney Gitchel was placed in four-point restraints at the order of the psychiatrist for two months in the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington.

After roughly 50 days of 24-hour-a-day restraint, Gitchel struggled free and assaulted the next guard who entered his cell.

On March 3, 2000, Gitchel was acquitted of assault charges that would have resulted in another five years of imprisonment because of the harshly punitive conditions of his confinement.

Both Grissom and Rosazza have noted that Mahone was never granted due process, nor given any specific behavioral goals to attain.

"He was thus subject to the whim of the officials who placed him there as to the length and conditions of his confinement," added Rosazza.

Noted prison psychiatrist Terry Kupers, the author of Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It, has studied the increasing frequency of extremely punitive conditions of incarceration, with a particular emphasis on the psychological impact of isolation cells.

"Placing a prisoner in a strip cell for longer than a few hours is an extremely demeaning and humiliating form of punishment," he explains. "It is entirely counterproductive in terms of behavior modification and violates all standards of medical care, human decency and human rights."

"Human beings are human beings," adds Grissom solemnly. "Even if you're incarcerated, you do not give up your right to human dignity."

See: Sylvester Mahone v. Joseph Lehman, et al, Case No. C98-5412 FDB.

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Related legal case

Mahone v. Lehman