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Washington State Settles Suit Over 15-Hour-a-Day Lockdown of Mentally Ill Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

In June 2019, Washington State officials settled a lawsuit over conditions of confinement for mentally ill prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), by agreeing to improve their living conditions. The settlement will end mandatory 15-hour-per-day lockdowns of prisoners with mental health issues, regardless of their custody level, and will increase access to programming.

In 2018, attorneys Rachael Seevers, Heather McKimmie and David Clarkson with Disability Rights Washington (DRW), and Andrew Biviano, Breean Beggs and Mary Dillon with the law firm of Paukert & Troppmann PLLC, filed a federal civil rights suit against Washington State over the excessive use of lockdowns for mentally ill prisoners at WSP.

The problem was structural. Treatment programs for mentally ill prisoners were only available in a close custody unit at the facility. Close custody is high security – the next step down from maximum security – and prisoners in the close custody units were required to spend 15 hours a day locked in their cells with limited access to the communal dayroom and outside recreation. Thus, prisoners classified as minimum- or medium-security were being treated as if they were close custody simply because they were seeking mental health treatment.

“Essentially, what was happening was anybody that needed mental health services in that facility was placed in close custody because mental health services were offered in a unit that was close custody,” said Seveers. “And it doesn’t matter if you followed the rules and you had no infractions for years. You’ll stay in this restrictive custody.”

The close custody status also limited prisoners’ access to educational programming, job assignments and other programs for which they were otherwise qualified. This affected about 70 mentally ill prisoners at WSP.

DRW began investigating the situation in 2016 after receiving complaints from prisoners. The Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) resisted all attempts at informal resolution, resulting in the lawsuit being filed in federal court.

The settlement noted that the DOC had already received a legislative appropriation of $5,000,000 to allow it to designate a unit at WSP as medium-security, with at least two “mods” reserved for treatment of mentally ill prisoners. The settlement defines a mod as a “prison unit containing a dayroom area, showers, and cells.” Prisoners in those mods will be able to access their cells using a personal key or push-button control.

The parties agreed that mentally ill prisoners were protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that they should be housed in the least-restrictive environment appropriate to their assigned custody, mental health needs and institutional security concerns.

DOC officials will review the custody score, assigned custody and housing assignment of each prisoner receiving mental health treatment at WSP, with the intent of housing them at the lowest appropriate custody level. The DOC also agreed to provide the prisoners in the designated mods with the same access to programs and activities as those in the Special Offender Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

The settlement agreement further included provisions to allow DRW attorneys to visit WSP and monitor the mental health units twice a year, and the state will pay $185,000 in attorneys’ fees plus $25,000 in annual monitoring costs. See: Disability Rights Washington v. Inslee, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wash.), Case No. 4:18-cv-05071-RMP. 

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Additional sources: klcc.org, nwnewsnetwork.org

Related legal case

Disability Rights Washington v. Inslee