The survey of work release centers stimulates change; Lawyers act with caution

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by Paul Kiefer

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted by agreement.)


Last Friday, the Washington Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO) released the final recommendations a nearly two-year review of the out-of-state placement program that revealed an alarming pattern of retaliation and arbitrary discipline by contract staff at out-of-state placement centers State.

The work release centers are housing for people detained by DOC; residents stay for less than a year, resuming normal life by working in civilian jobs, visiting family members and attending counseling sessions.

Since the state legislature established the OCO as an oversight agency for the State Corrections Department (DOC) in 2018, the office has repeatedly investigated allegations of placement officers. outside responding to criticism or complaints by returning residents to prison for minor rule violations.

In 2018, a resident of an out-of-home placement center in Spokane attempted to file a sexual assault and harassment complaint against a guard, only to be arrested and returned to prison for allegedly threatening her stalker – a allegation which the OCO later referred to as “hearsay”. In 2019, staff at an out-of-home placement center in Beacon Hill would have conspired to send a resident back to prison after criticizing the work release program during a meeting with DOC administrators. And in 2020, an OCO survey found that staff at a placement center outside Pioneer Square may have returned a resident to prison in retaliation to a protest from family members outside the center.

Many other incidents of alleged retaliation by work release administrators have passed under the radar. A resident on work release returned to jail after staff found a small drill bit in her backpack that she said belonged to her boyfriend. In other cases, work release staff disciplined residents who returned to their centers late after missing a bus.

“These centers are meant to be a bridge to society,” said Melody Simle, a prisoner rights advocate whose brother has spent time at a placement center outside Snohomish County. “But instead, the centers really focused on punishing people for the smallest things. In the two years that I have been doing this job, the number one complaint is that when people leave for work, to take the bus, to buy clothes… they are all terrified. They’re all scared of messing up something tiny and being sent back to jail.

And a negative work release experience can be the difference between thriving outside and returning to prison multiple times, said Milo Burshaine, who recently left an out-of-home placement center in Seattle. “Remote work can make or break you,” he said. “If someone is doing well on the outside, it’s important that work release staff pay attention to their needs – their mental health, their stress. An overly punitive work release does not help someone adjust to independence.

Responding to advocacy from incarcerated people and their families, OCO Director Joanna Carnes asked the department to convene a task force in 2020 to discuss short and long term changes to the placement program in the hospital. outside the department. Most of the task force members were DOC employees, including Assistant Secretary for Reinstatement Danielle Armbruster. The group did not include staff from work release centers named in reprisal complaints.

The group also did not include formerly incarcerated members, although it did include two people whose relatives had spent time in outside placement centers – including Simle, who helped organize meetings with residents. out-of-office centers in Seattle and Tacoma for comment.

Because the task force was not tied to a particular misconduct complaint, its focus quickly expanded well beyond the issue of retaliation. For example, the OCO report recommends that work release residents receive consistent Internet access and referral packages. The task force also provided the opportunity to push through long-standing changes to the work release system, including a DOC agreement to allow residents out of state placement facilities to ” have personal cars to get to and from work; previously, residents of placement centers outside of Seattle and other cities could only get around by public transportation.

But arbitrary or excessive discipline in work release centers remained at the heart of the Task Force’s conversations. Based on these discussions, the OCO recommended that the DOC create standardized training for staff members who preside over disciplinary hearings, that inmates accused of violating work release rules receive copies evidence against them, and that the DOC identify less serious alternatives to sending people back to jail for minor abuses.

Importantly, the OCO also asked the DOC to come up with a “clear vision statement for work release centers” that emphasizes rehabilitation and support through the intricacies of reintegration, as opposed to centers that test residents’ abilities to fully adhere to DOC Rules.

The DOC has accepted many of the reforms proposed by the task force, such as offering a wider range of penalties for residents who break DOC rules – deals that have garnered praise from lawyers like Simle. But the ministry did not agree to adopt a new vision statement for work release, leaving some advocates concerned about the ministry’s willingness to follow through on promises of improvement.

“Instead of just agreeing to write a new vision statement, DOC avoided the problem,” said Teresa Hertz, a task force member whose son spent time at a placement center in Bellingham. “If that’s too much of a stretch, it says a lot about their sincerity in resolving work release issues. “

And although the DOC has started training work placement supervisors to avoid retaliation, Hertz also noted that the OCO report did not address the more fundamental issue of the accountability of work placement staff. outside who retaliates – including those who have already done so without punishment.

“Training doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to change,” she said. Work release staff who have not followed the rules for punishing participants for years have become “used to unchecked power,” Hertz said, “and if they retrain and are allowed to keep their job after lying or retaliating against a resident, How nice is that? “

Burshaine added that failing to hold problematic staff members to account could also undermine the main purpose of work release programs: acclimating people to civilian life after years behind bars. “Failure to hold staff accountable means more people will not thrive in the outside job,” he said. “This means that more people will not have the chance to readjust to life on the outside, which means more people will return to prison.”

While the DOC investigates complaints against its staff, their findings sometimes conflict with the OCO. For example, a ministerial investigation into the guard who allegedly groped a resident of the placement center outside of Spokane did not find the guard guilty of sexual misconduct, although the DOC transferred the guard to a facility reserved for women. men for a separate and more minor policy. offenses.

At this time, it can be difficult for members of the public to know if DOC is improving disciplinary conditions and practices at work release centers as promised. In an email, DOC spokesperson Jacque Coe said the department was preparing an exit survey for those leaving work release to assess the success of the reforms. Coe also noted that DOC is still deciding how to measure the success of the work release program. During this time, the OCO does not have the authority to initiate a follow-up review.


Paul Faruq Kiefer is a born and raised journalist, historian and Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police responsibility for PubliCola.

📸 Featured Image: Washington Department of Corrections Labor Liberation Center in Pioneer Square (Google Street View)

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