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Washington State Opens Environmentally-Friendly Control Unit

by Matt Clarke

In October 2007, the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), Washington State's largest prison, opened the first prison building in Washington State to be certified as "green" by the U.S. Green Building Council. The unit, a new segregation building with 200 bunks, consists of a 100-bunk Intensive Management Unit (IMU) for prisoners who are placed there at the whim of prison officials for indefinite, long term stays and a 100-bunk unit for prisoners spending a shorter period in segregation.

At 2,500-bunks, not including the new segregation building, MCC is Washington State's largest prison. Located 45 minutes from Seattle, overcrowding has long been an issue at MCC. Relatives of prisoners claim that the crowded conditions led to violence, including the murder of several prisoners.

The new segregation building cost $39.5 million. The price tag included a rainwater collection system for toilet-flushing water and low energy lighting.

The Washington State Legislature passed state laws requiring that new prisons be energy efficient even though construction costs of such prisons are higher than those of conventional prisons. Thus, the new green-rated 2,048-bunk prison unit at Coyote Ridge will cost $254 million. However, according to Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) officials, the extra cost will pay for itself in the long run by reducing operating costs. Of course, this assumes things turn out as planned. PLN has previously reported on the shoddy construction of other Washington state prisons that resulted in millions of dollars of repairs.

"It costs a little bit more to build," said David Jansen, head of the DOC's capital programs. "But over the life of the building it ends up costing less" in utilities and maintenance costs.

The new control unit follows the typical pattern of other Intensive Management Units in Washington state. Prisoners are locked in their 8-by-12-foot cells 24-hours a day, with a nominal one hour of "recreation" outside the cell five days a week. They are allowed 15-minute showers three times a week. Prisoners are observed 24 hours a day from an elevated, hi-tech control room and the 172 security cameras, placed throughout the 77,000-square-foot building. Prisoners are limited to six months in the segregation unit, but can stay in IMU indefinitely.

The only difference in how the two are run is that IMU prisoners are allowed a TV and a radio.

Allison Parker, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, described solitary confinement as "cruel and unusual punishment."

"Solitary confinement has the obvious effect of reducing social contacts between offenders ... and can have lasting psychological effects on human beings," according to Parker. "It should be a measure of last resort."

Unfortunately the DOC and many other prison systems, use solitary confinement as the preferred option for prisoners who don't kowtow to the system. In addition to confining some incorrigibly violent or vulnerable prisoners, it is often used to discourage prisoner journalists and jailhouse lawyers from exposing the evil inherent in the American way of imprisonment. PLN editor Paul Wright observed that during his imprisonment he wound up in many of Washington state's IMUs in retaliation for his writing and litigation.

"Built at great expense, Washington fills its IMUs with prisoners accused of minor offenses and the mentally ill," Wright said. This is the seventh 100 cell IMU Washington has built since 1984 when it opened its first one. Likewise, in many states costly prison expansion project are touted while inexpensive rehabilitation programs languish underfunded.

Washington State is currently in the midst of a $500 million prison expansion program which will result in new units being built at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, the Washington State Penitentiary, Larch Corrections Center, Cedar Creek Corrections Center, Airway Heights Corrections Center and Mission Creed women's prison. The 3,500-bunk expansion program is scheduled for completion by 2009. Despite the program, DOC officials predict a 4,000-bunk deficit within a decade.

"We don't think you can outbuild the inmate population," said assistant deputy of prison departments Mike Kenney. "It's kind of a 'Field of Dreams' syndrome."

According to Kenney, a better solution is the $25 million re-entry program tailored to reduce recidivism.

"The whole purpose of re-entry is to turn back the tide so we don't keep building new prisons," said Kenny. "We don't believe that building is a long-term solution."

Nice words, retort prisoner advocates, but put your money where your mouth is instead of funding recidivism reduction programs at 1/20th the rate of construction projects funding.

"They do these little piecemeal things," said An Kohn, advocate for improved educational, and transitional housing programs. "It's ridiculous, and it comes out of cowardice. All of these legislators are just scared to death at being labeled soft on crime."

Unfortunately, whereas the legislature seems perfectly capable of understanding long-term payoffs when it comes to green building construction, it seems to lose that long-term perspective when rehabilitation programs are proposed. The greenest prison is an empty one. However, until law-making bodies throughout the country come to value and appreciate the practicality of rehabilitation programs, we are likely to continue with record-breaking prison populations and prison-building booms. The building of "green prisons" also illustrates how easily co-opted the rhetoric of environmentalism is for destructive and repressive purposes.

Sources: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle Times

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