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Problems at Washington’s Civil Commitment Center Continue

by Matt Clarke

On July 30, 2008, Paepaega Matautia, Jr., 39, a mail room guard at the Special Commitment Center (SCC) for sex offenders on McNeil Island in Washington state, was arrested on federal charges of attempting to possess and distribute crack cocaine at the facility. The next day, SCC resident (the SCC term for prisoner) Lawrence Williams, 50, was arrested for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and witness tampering.

Matautia, who had worked at SCC since December 2003, reportedly delivered drugs to Williams at least eight times. Williams had been incarcerated at SCC since he was civilly committed after his sentence for a first-degree rape conviction expired in August 2002.

On December 12, 2008, Matautia pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to possess and distribute cocaine; he has not yet been sentenced. Williams pleaded guilty on April 13, 2009, but later sought to withdraw the plea after he accused the government of breeching the terms of the agreement.

The arrests of Matautia and Williams are not the only incidents to occur at SCC, which holds 280 men and one woman under prison-like conditions, complete with razor-wire fences and video surveillance cameras. In 2006 and 2007, SCC staff discovered contraband 230 times. The contraband included at least two instances of child porn on computers, unauthorized video games, Xboxes, Playstations, cell phones hidden inside shoes, “inappropriate” magazines, pills, weapons, photos of nude children, and videos of a sexually-oriented TV show. One SCC resident, Richard Eugene Jackson, was caught with 760 child porn files on a computer; he was returned to state prison. Another, John Michael Obert, was found with CD-ROMs containing child pornography.

How does such contraband get into SCC, which is basically a prison within a prison (the McNeil Island Corrections Center), located on an island? SCC residents and common sense tell us that staff members bring in much of the contraband. The arrest of Matautia gives credence to this proposition.

“The administration, they want to point the finger at the residents and tell us we’re the cause of it when it’s not,” said Carrie Benjamin, an SCC resident for the past eight years. “It’s the staff bringing the contraband and they want to restrict us.”

SCC superintendent Dr. Henry Richards said they were doing the best they could, but the facility was criticized in 2006 for not developing a policy of randomly testing residents for alcohol use despite having “a long history of alcohol being brewed and consumed” at SCC, and for not having changed its procedures to eliminate contraband “despite repeated instances of pornography” being discovered.

There also have been complaints about some SCC residents using telephones to harass victims of their crimes and using chat lines to establish inappropriate contacts with children. According to Dr. Richards, there have been no disciplinary actions or prosecutions because they cannot positively identify who was on the phone, and are prohibited by law from restricting telephone use. SCC residents are considered civil detainees, not convicted prisoners, and thus have greater rights.

Richards said that “because the law is written that they have all rights except those required to contain them here in the center and to provide for their treatment,” nothing can be done about the phone calls. State Representative Troy Kelly is seeking to change that.
Kelly introduced a bill calling for an outside company to maintain logs at SCC showing who called whom, which could be checked if there is a complaint. “Sex offenders in the commitment center shouldn’t be able to continue victimizing the public,” he said. SCC residents countered that logging their phone conversations would violate their constitutional rights and constitute an invasion of their privacy and the privacy of the persons they call. The bill failed to pass in 2008 and has been reintroduced this year as HB 1099, where it has stalled in committee.

On October 22, 2007, a state rehabilitation counselor resigned after being placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into whether she had an inappropriate relationship with an SCC resident. The counselor, Nora Cutshaw, had escorted resident Casper Ross to a relative’s home on April 1, 2007. A police officer checking the home discovered Cutshaw fixing her shirt and hair, while Ross was adjusting his belt. A photo of Cutshaw in a bathing suit was later found in Ross’ room.

An investigation did not substantiate a sexual relationship, but Cutshaw was found to have violated policies and protocol. She denied any inappropriate conduct and has since filed a claim against the state for mental and emotional distress and the loss of her good name.

On December 29, 2008, a prisoner at the state prison that surrounds SCC, the McNeil Island Corrections Center, almost escaped from the facility. Dressed in street clothes, Donald Dravis walked out of the prison after telling a guard he had left his ID in his truck. Dravis was recognized by another guard, who followed him to a ferry that Dravis had boarded which would have taken him to the mainland. A team of guards convinced Dravis to return to the prison peaceably.

A January 7, 2009 incident review report by the WA Dept. of Corrections found numerous policy violations that contributed to the attempted escape, including prison staff who “did not follow emergency response guidelines.” Dravis was serving time on child molestation charges, and is a potential candidate for confinement at SCC after he completes his sentence.

A suspected arson fire damaged a building at SCC on January 25, 2009; the fire resulted in the evacuation of 74 residents and an estimated $155,000 in property damage, but no injuries. Local law enforcement authorities were investigating.

It costs the State of Washington about $167,000 annually to hold each resident at SCC, which it considers a treatment center. This compares with $33,000 per prisoner per year at state prisons. One other major difference is that SCC residents have no release dates; they are held indefinitely until they are deemed “cured.” Only two residents have been unconditionally released from SCC since the facility opened in 1990. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.38].

“The law says civil commitment is indeterminate until they’re rehabilitated, treated or whatever word you want to use,” said James Mayhew, a Vancouver, Washington criminal defense attorney. “But it’s basically a life sentence.”

Sources: Associated Press,,, Seattle Times,

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