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Washington State Supreme Court Holds that Denying Wheelchair-Bound Prisoner Access to Water and Toilet Facilities Violates State Constitution

by Doug Ankney

In an opinion issued on October 7, 2021, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled that holding wheelchair-bound prisoner Robert Rufus Williams in a cell that lacked a sink or toilet violated the Washington State Constitution.

The now-79-year old Williams was convicted of multiple offenses, including a brutal assault of his ex-girlfriend, and sentenced to 22.5 years of confinement. Years earlier, Williams had experienced a massive stroke that immobilized the right side of his body and required him to use a wheelchair. He also suffered from diabetes and hypertension.

While at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (CRCC), Williams shared a cell with three prisoners. Because the cell had no sink or toilet, Williams had to wait for prison staff to unlock his cell and move him to an accessible bathroom facility equipped to accommodate his needs. He often waited long periods of time for this assistance, forced frequently to relieve himself in bottles and unable to keep himself clean.

In April 2020, Williams sought an extraordinary medical placement with his sister in Florida. The state Department of Corrections (DOC) denied his request. A week later, CRCC reported its first case of COVID-19 within the facility.

Aided by counsel from the Washington Innocence Project, Williams filed a personal restraint petition (PRP) in May 2020, alleging his conditions of confinement were cruel in violation of article I, section 14 of the Washington State Constitution and the Eighth Amendment of the federal constitution. He requested immediate release to live with his sister in Florida.

While his PRP was pending in the Court of Appeals (COA), Williams tested positive for COVID-19. After being hospitalized, he was returned to his cell at CRCC.

The court then denied his PRP, after which the Washington Supreme Court granted his request for accelerated review.

In its analysis, the Court said it was guided by the six non-exhaustive factors of State v. Gunwall, 720 P.2d 808 (Wash. 1986): (1) the textual language of the state constitution; (2) differences in the texts of parallel provisions of the federal and state constitutions; (3) state constitutional and common law history; (4) preexisting state law; (5) structural differences between the federal and state constitutions; and (6) matters of particular state interests or local concern.

The court concluded that article I, section 14 of the state constitution provided greater protection than the Eighth Amendment of the federal constitution. Whereas article I, section 14 prohibits “cruel” conditions, the Eighth Amendment prohibits only conditions that are both “cruel and unusual.” Additionally, case law recognized Washington’s long-standing and special duty to keep convicted individuals “in health and safety,” the Court said, citing Kusah v. McCorkle, 170 P. 1023 (Wash. 1918).

Ultimately, the Court concluded that the state constitution prohibits conditions of confinement that create a substantial risk of harm unless they are reasonably necessary to accomplish a legitimate penological interest. Unlike Eighth Amendment claims, prisoners in Washington do not have to meet the deliberate indifference standard of Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), if they bring their claims under the Washington Constitution.

Because DOC, pursuant to an order of the Court, had moved Williams to an assisted-living unit within the prison with access to a toilet and water, provided him with a personal aide, and provided him with an emergency call button to summon medical help, the Court denied his request for release to his sister’s home. Even though he was still subject to a risk of harm, the state has an interest in keeping him confined to protect the public. See: In re Pers. Restraint of Williams, 198 Wn.2d 342 (Wash. 2021).

As of April 8, 2022, DOC had recorded 13,723 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its prisoner population, with 17 deaths. This opinion details some of the barbarism of 19th-century prison conditions—when leg irons did the work of guards—and reforms that followed. It appears the Court, by comparing its ordered remedy with those earlier conditions of confinement, satisfies itself that it is humane. But isn’t this like a 500-pound man shedding 100 pounds and announcing he is no longer obese?  

Additional source: Centralia Chronicle

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