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Retaliation against Washington Whistleblowers for Reporting Faked Prison Statistics

It seemed like a great idea. The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) would try a pilot program in a couple of 130-bed pods at Airway Heights Corrections Center with the aim of improving prisoner behavior using positive reinforcement and behavioral modification classes. The DOC trained guards to offer prisoners verbal praise for good behavior, but also to be swift and consistent when dispensing punishment. Prisoners could earn coupons by completing behavioral modification classes and the coupons could be redeemed for "small rewards and privileges, such as preferential haircut appointments, photographs to send home or, within enough coupons, they can check out TV remotes for their cells or bring to their cells materials and tools for hobbies." Other promised earned privileges included viewing movies, preference for jobs and the ability to request transfers to prisons of their choice. However, in practice, these requests were rarely fulfilled.

Nonetheless, the DOC proclaimed the Prison Pilot Program a huge success, saying it reduced prison violence by 75%. In April 2013, the DOC's new Director of Offender Change, Amy Seidlitz, begin preparing a report for Governor Jay Inslee's Chief of Staff touting the 75% reduction in violence. The same figures were later reported to the state legislature by DOC Secretary Bernie Warner. The legislature then appropriated an additional $1.8 million to expand the program.

The problem, according to DOC researcher Teri Herold-Prayer and her supervisor Michael Evans, is that the statistics are false. Herold-Prayer and Evans cite two interim reports prepared by Washington State University (WSU) researchers who were working alongside Herold-Prayer and Evans. The reports were published in November 2012 and February 2013. They show no change in prison violence when the pilot program is compared to a carefully matched control group of prisoners of similar age, race, education, gang affiliation, crime and sentence. The latter study was published one month before the DOC first issued a press release praising the program and citing the 75% violence reduction statistic.

According to Herold-Prayer and Evans, before the press release and report to the Chief of Staff were released, they took their concerns about the "skewed" statistics to Seidlitz. She made it clear that she wanted to tell the Chief of Staff that the program was successful regardless of the WSU findings because it was "worth millions of dollars to the DOC." Herold-Prayer then took her concerns to Director of Executive Strategy Analysis and Accountability Adam Aaesby, but he refused to do anything about it for fear of retaliation.

Evans told Warner about the falsified statistics, but Warner still used them when testifying before the legislature.

Apparently Aaesby had good reason to fear retaliation. Herold-Prayer and Evans allege that their pay was cut and they were demoted and harassed by superiors for reporting the skewed statistics, which they said the DOC achieved by manipulating the control group. The DOC claims it merely compared the rate of violence within the pilot pods with those of nearby pods containing prisoners awaiting entry into the program.

Herold-Prayer and Evans are appealing their demotions. They have filed complaints with the Human Rights Commission and the State Auditor's Office.

Aided by Seattle attorney Robin Phillips, they are also seeking damages for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional duress and violations of the Whistleblower Act and Public Records Act (because the DOC allegedly refused to turn over public documents related to their claims) in state court.


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