Washington Corrections Watch has released its first comprehensive report on issues in the Washington Department of Corrections: Punishing Relations – How WA DOC’s hidden costs and collateral damage imprison families.
The devastating effect of decades of mass incarceration on Washington state communities has become increasingly apparent. The financial and emotional burdens of incarceration are primarily borne by female family members of prisoners, most especially in communities of color. Although public dialogue concerning reentry support has increased in Washington, the secondary incarceration of prisoners’ families has not been properly acknowledged. Judicial, legislative, and public deference to Washington Department of Corrections (WA DOC) administrators has precluded proper oversight of WA DOC policies and practices, to the detriment of family relationships and in violation of the legislative intent of corrections (RCW 72.09.010). This is of deep concern, given the crucial role family support during incarceration plays in reducing recidivism. This report documents deficiencies in support for Washington families surviving incarceration, highlighting the needs of both the incarcerated and their loved ones. We identify hidden costs and collateral consequences under WA DOC’s current correctional model and make recommendations for how Washington can better support families surviving incarceration.
The report’s overarching recommendation: We recommend that Washington lawmakers establish an external WA DOC Correctional Policy Oversight Board. Although WA DOC recently created a method for the public to give input on policy revisions, the department is not obligated to use that input. With few exceptions, WA DOC policies are subject only to an internal self-affirming review process when created or revised. Agency WACs also receive less scrutiny than those of other state agencies due to special exceptions in WA DOC’s rule making process. Moreover, WA DOC policy authors and leadership lack the multidisciplinary expertise needed to accurately assess policies for long-term effects on reentry outcomes and recidivism. A multidisciplinary external oversight board comprising legislators, social workers, equity experts, a Statewide Family Council (SFC) representative, a Statewide Reentry Council representative, Disability Rights Washington attorneys, and the Corrections Ombuds, as well as UW Law, Societies, and Justice professors would ensure that WA DOC’s WACs, policies, and Operational Memoranda are thoroughly assessed before implementation for continuous policy improvements that demonstrably lead to superior outcomes in family connections, reentry, and long-term public safety. It would also ensure that WA DOC’s publicized efforts at cultural change and partnerships with the Vera Institute and Amend translate to tangible action in practice.
The report also makes seven additional recommendations and provides a checklist of recommended reforms as an appendix.