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Washington Prison Guards Sue Prisoners

Prisoners who attack Washington state prison guards can add one more potential consequence to their actions – garnishment of their commissary accounts.

The effort to garnish prisoners’ accounts is being spearheaded by the Washington Staff Assault Task Force (WSATF), a group of guards who hope to deter assaults by suing their attackers.

WSATF thinks that prisoners will be less inclined to attack guards if they know they will lose the money sent to them by family members or friends, or earned in prison wages.
Prisoners can use the funds in their accounts to buy food, TVs, shoes and other amenities.

“You start taking away [a prisoner’s] creature comforts, and then he might think twice about doing it again,” said Darren Kelly, WSATF’s chairman and a guard at the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane.

Assaultive prisoners lose “good time” and are placed in control units and are frequently brutally attacked by guards as well, but are rarely prosecuted. The loss of good time alone, guards say, is an inadequate deterrent.

Thus, WSATF files lawsuits against prisoners who attack prison guards. Most recently the group sued a prisoner who assaulted John Poynor, a guard at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Washington. Poynor’s shoulder was allegedly dislocated in the attack.

Republican state Senator Mike Hewitt has introduced a bill, SB 5030, that would make it easier for guards to garnish damage awards from prisoners’ accounts. Under current law prisoners must be notified before such funds can be garnished, which gives them enough time to empty their accounts. Hewitt’s bill, which remains pending, would change that.

It’s not a win-win situation for the guards, though. Because injuries from prisoner assaults are work-related, guards who sue prisoners may be required to forgo worker’s compensation. According to WSATF’s website, the group has over 1,700 members and has won 18 civil judgments against prisoners totaling $89,000. For example, in February 2010, Monroe Correctional Complex Sgt. Jimmie Fletcher obtained a judgment of $5,089 against a mentally ill prisoner who had attacked him. It is not known if Fletcher is getting workers compensation as well. Also not revealed by WSATF is how much money they have actually collected on behalf of their members.

A better approach to suing such prisoners, though, may be to provide adequate mental health care and address conditions of confinement or other underlying factors that contribute to assaults on prison guards.


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