Cages Are All the Rage: Doubling Down on Centuries of Failure

Joey Pedersen

The Greek gods would have been impressed with the sadism of American prison officials. I do not say this lightly, and neither should you accept the claim at face value, for the Greek deities were accomplished punishers. Ixion, after all, was chained to a wheel merely for having relations with a cloud (it’s a long story, which gives new meaning to the term “having one’s head in the clouds”), and the punishments of Sisyphus, Tantalus, Prometheus, et al. are well known. But not even the monstrous deities of the classical world could have devised a punishment as uniquely perverse as the one routinely carried out by modern prison officials. Probably the Greeks were too creative, too enterprising, and far too prideful to have stumbled upon the exquisite form of psychological torture known as Cage Your Rage. Such a punishment required the stunted minds of banal, bureaucratic near-automata who view human beings as numbers to be added or subtracted.

Art from the Cage Your Rage curriculum, developed by the American Correctional Association in the 1990s

A word—or two or 10—about Cage Your Rage will be forthcoming, of course, as the reader is probably unaware of this curious instrument of the brutes paid by the state to manage its prisoners. But first it is necessary to provide a bit of background information so the reader may better understand the circumstances in which Cage Your Rage is employed.

The various departments of corrections across the country, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, all warehouse prisoners in solitary confinement. Washington’s DOC is no exception. The number of prisoners in solitary will vary from state to state, and month to month, but almost invariably each jurisdiction will have dozens to hundreds of human beings thusly housed. (Oh the things that occur right under our noses, with our tax dollars, and at the behest of our public servants! Dickens would refer to solitary confinement as “a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” (1842))

It is not my intent to provide an exhaustive review of the history and effects of solitary confinement, but a few data are important for context. It should first be understood that the threat of solitary hangs over the head of every prisoner in the custody of WDOC. An inmate might be sent to solitary—called the “Intensive Management Unit” (IMU) by prison administrators who are ever in search of a good euphemism [1]—for any number of things: expressing a difference of opinion with a guard, fighting another inmate, or simply because a particular guard is having a bad day and doesn’t care much for the prisoner. It is also true that WDOC will house prisoners indefinitely in IMU for “administrative reasons.” I myself was taken directly from Snohomish County Jail to the IMU at Monroe Correctional Complex in March of 2012 and assigned a “program” (about which more later). I would remain there for the better part of a year, until being transferred to federal custody to face criminal charges. Upon returning to WDOC custody in 2014, I was again kept in IMU for the better part of a year before releasing into the general population. My placement was not based on an infraction of the rules, but rather the whim of prison officials.

The duration of a prisoner’s stay in IMU can vary drastically. He might remain there a week or several years. It is generally true that the majority of short-term IMU inmates have a good idea as to when they will be released into the general population, but, for reasons we shall see later, this does not hold for the majority of long-term IMU inmates.

The conditions in IMU vary slightly from prison to prison, but they share essential elements. If I were to be taken right now to the IMU here at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), this is what I could expect:

I would be stripped naked and, to get the psychological gamesmanship under way from the gate, made to bend over and spread my cheeks (contrary to B movies and the fevered imaginations of prison officials, the majority of prisoners—like the majority of human beings in general—do not carry objects in their rectums. This means of “searching” the inmate is a Soviet style tool intended to humiliate the subject).

I would then be handed a jumpsuit several sizes too large, told to get dressed, and then, to visit further psychological hardship on me, I’d be left waiting in the holding cell for anywhere from a half hour to several hours, nothing for company but the bright lights, a filthy toilet, and four urine-streaked walls. (I’ve heard it said that every place has its own charm, but after spending over half my life in prison I must respectfully disagree, unless by charm one means stench). After a time, even a germophobe like myself will use the half-roll of toilet paper sitting forlornly on the stainless steel sink as a pillow and the concrete slab for a bed to try and escape for a bit. It is usually after you’ve settled into your hobo’s nap that they come for you. A cynic might suspect that they’d been observing him over the camera, waiting for just such a moment, but of course they wouldn’t do such thing. (Really, they’ll tell you as much with a straight face. Having spent millions of dollars wiring these places for audio and video, and having perfected the dark art of monitoring personal correspondence and telephone calls, they will scoff at the notion that they have the time or inclination to do such things).

Having been placed in handcuffs, to which a leash is attached, I would be escorted to a cell by two guards, one of whose hands would grasp my arm and a shoulder (the other guard having leash duty) because one can never be too sure that a leashed, handcuffed prisoner escorted by two guards might not spontaneously break into a set of jumping jacks or begin turning cartwheels.

The 12×8 cell into which I’d be placed would be filthy. Well do I recall the dustballs, ants, and bits of food on the floor of the cell I was assigned during my last trip to IMU, and even now I can hear the Velcro-like sound made by the mattress when I pulled it from the concrete slab (evidently the previous inhabitant left streaks of juice—and one shudders to imagine what else—between the slab and the plastic Correctional Industries “mattress”). I would be issued sheets, two blankets that have seen far better days, a bar of soap, a toothbrush the size of my thumb, a small tube of chalk rather creatively referred to by prison officials as toothpaste, a miniature pen, and the false hope of a better tomorrow. Sometimes one is even given a pound of salt to rub into one’s wounds, in the form of advice from mental health professionals (Baker, M. 2019).

If one is callow enough to request books, one will be informed that “books are on Wednesdays” (heaven help the wretch who is brought to hell on a Thursday). The cell would be my home for the length of my stay in IMU. The only time I’d be afforded the opportunity to leave it is when, five days a week, I am handcuffed and taken to the “recreation” area. This is a small enclosure with, if the prisoner is lucky, a grating across the top providing a poor man’s view of the sky. (The recreation areas in IMU South at WSP don’t even have this going for them. They are essentially rooms with a small grated opening on the back wall that allows in fresh air. WDOC officials actually refer to these rooms as “outdoor” recreation areas. This denial of outdoor exercise [2] violates federal law, which in the 9th Circuit is very clear on prisoners’ rights to outdoor exercise.) There I would be given 45 minutes to walk in squares and use the telephone. Certain of these enclosures have dip and/or pull-up bars, though the “outdoor” areas in IMU South have dip bars that are a mere six inches from the ground. What jesters these people can be!

Upon leaving the recreation area, if it is one of the three “shower days” of the week, I would be escorted to a cage perhaps a third the size of my cell and given another 30 minutes to use the filthy shower in it. Aside from trips to these areas, I would never leave my cell. Yet the brutes begrudge IMU inmates even these meager outings, for it is their practice to have inmates sign up for them. This seems reasonable, except that they generally come around early in the morning, when the majority of prisoners are sleeping, and fail to announce their presence. It is one of the rare instances when they will come onto the tier and not stomp their combat boots (always prepared for pseudo-war, these fellows!), incessantly click their handcuffs, bang the railings, and otherwise act like small children in need of attention who’ve had far too much sugar with their breakfast.

There is also hunger to consider. It may be that the inmate has saved a roll or a helping of beans from lunch, and leaving the cell might mean one of the brutes will come in and take “contraband” while the inmate is “outside” (we live in cages and quotation marks in this incongruous world within worlds) or in the shower. The gamble isn’t always worth it to a poorly fed prisoner whose exercise and pacing—often the only things standing between himself and the abyss—depend on every last calorie. (The prisoner’s diet in Washington state is prepared with exiguity by the folks at Correctional Industries (Fisher et al., 2016).

It is this environment into which prisoners in WDOC custody are routinely thrown, as a matter of course and with great bureaucratic indifference. Among the deleterious effects of even a short term stay in IMU are: anxiety, lethargy, confusion, reduced cognitive functioning, inability to concentrate, hallucinations, insomnia, heart palpitations, and psychotic episodes (Grassian, 1983; Haney, 1993; Toch, 1992)

Not everyone subjected to solitary confinement experiences all of these symptoms, and certain prisoners may not experience any of them. But the vast majority of human beings confined indefinitely to an IMU cell will experience, to varying degrees, at least a few of these effects.

It is only with this in mind that the reader can fully grasp the real perversity of Cage Your Rage and similar “programs” regularly assigned to prisoners unfortunate enough to have found themselves at the mercy of men and women who believe, in 2021, that warehousing human beings in concrete boxes is a good idea.

The Program is Self-Destruction

The word “program” can mean many different things. It can be a schedule for a music or dance recital, a television show, or computer software. To Washington prison officials, virtually everything is a program [3]. It you’ve ever visited a loved one in a WDOC facility, you were participating in the visiting program. A prisoner forced to work “or else” (DOC 700.000; WAC 137-25-030, item 557) is participating in the inmate work program. Those prisoners who grab their lunch meal are taking part in the DOC’s food service program. And so on.

The term has ominous undertones for inmates in IMU. To be assigned “a program” means to be left in solitary confinement for an indefinite period of time, usually the better part of a year, at a minimum, and sometimes far longer.

As part of the “program” (hereafter we omit the quotation marks, thereby lending a temporary respectability—we are nothing if not magnanimous—to our friend the program. Fare thee well without thy clothing, program, and do not embarrass us too badly!) the inmate is assigned a series of packets that must be completed if he is to even be considered for release from IMU (DOC 320.250). These packets are usually authored by psychiatrists whose intellectual and professional integrity were held subordinate to their desire for money, and the titles of the packets reflect their inanity: Inside Out and Cage Your Rage are two examples.

Ostensibly it is for the good of the inmate and society, but this bit of sophistry is not accepted by serious individuals who have given the matter any thought at all. The truth is that these packets are used as a means of putting makeup on a pig. When one makes a living out of warehousing human beings in cages, one is always in search of a shiny veneer behind which may be veiled any number of squalid realities.

Modern American corrections, which in a nutshell is the control and manipulation of human beings in a custodial setting, is down to a science. Few, if any, of a prison’s régime have not been well planned by prison officials. They have been implemented for a reason, or several reasons. Prison bureaucrats are the last people who can credibly claim ignorance of the harmful effects of their policies and practices. Not only do they see them up-close [4], but they also have at their disposal a vast body of literature concerning virtually every facet of human captivity. For instance, it is well understood that isolation can break the will of the prisoner, rendering him willing to do things he otherwise would never consider. In their 1956 report on Communist interrogation techniques, Hinkle and Wolff wrote that isolation was “usually sufficient to make the prisoner eager to talk to his interrogator and to seek some method to escape from a situation which had become intolerable.” (Hinkle and Wolff, 1956; emphasis my own). The studies conducted in the 1950s at McGill University in Montreal produced the same findings (Brownfield, 1965; Vernon, 1965; Suedfeld, 1969).

Even a cursory review of the literature by a layperson is enough to see that solitary confinement visits great harm on individuals and that those subjected to it will often do just about anything to alleviate their suffering. Over 100 years ago the Washington Supreme Court observed that “[t]he effects of solitary confinement on the mind of a person charged with a crime may be imagined. It is a well-known psychological fact that men and women have frequently confessed to crimes which they did not commit. They have done it sometimes to escape present punishment which had become torture to them; sometimes through other motives” (State v. Miller, 1910).

Prison officials everywhere know these things, including those here in Washington. I do not mean the common brutes employed as guards, but rather the administrators responsible for writing policy and implementing practices. There is intent behind what they have created and perpetuated. Hans Christian Andersen knew as much when, after visiting a Swedish prison modelled upon an American one, he wrote “It is a well-built machine, a nightmare for the spirit” (Andersen, 1851).

Even if a vast body of literature on the subject did not exist, prison officials still would have a difficult time credibly claiming ignorance because not only do prisoners and their loved ones routinely point out the harmful effects of solitary confinement, but so too do numerous organizations, among them Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, and the ACLU. Indeed, the WDOC is currently partnered [5]—I push the bounds of decency with this word—with the Vera Institute specifically to evaluate ways it can reform its practices relating to solitary confinement. Thus far I have seen nothing at all to indicate that this “partnership” is anything more than a cheap PR stunt on the part of prison administrators.

Whatever the case, it is clear that these officials know precisely what they’re doing when they place prisoners in IMU and assign them programs. The best that might be said of them in this regard is that they are indifferent to the suffering visited upon these prisoners, and to the negative effects on the community when ultimately they are released back into society, as the majority of them will be.

We’re getting better all the time, really

“They tell me you’re not going to do the packets.”
“That’s right. I don’t have an anger problem.”
“Why are you in IMU?”
“Because I got into a fight.”
“Well…”
“I wasn’t angry when it happened.”
“Anger is at the root of much of our behavior, even when we aren’t conscious of it. Anger is what got you in prison.”
“The naked greed and stupidity of a 16-year-old who decided to rob a McDonald’s landed me in prison. I’m sure I don’t follow your logic.”
“Well, if you don’t do these packets you can’t leave IMU.”
“But the questions are ridiculous, and many of them are very personal.”
“Just make something up.”
“You want me to lie?”
“I want you to complete the fucking packets.”
“You seem angry. Perhaps you ought to do them for me.”

Some questions prisoners are required to answer in the Cage Your Rage curriculum are the sort of questions a person detained by law enforcement should only answer with an attorney present. Note also that a WA DOC prisoner in solitary confinement must complete enough packets to reach Max Level 3 before being allowed coffee as a commissary item. See WA DOC IMU commissary order form here.

I first encountered the Cage Your Rage packets in the late 90s. I’d been sent to the IMU at the Oregon State Penitentiary [6] for fighting, something that seems like (and unfortunately is) a good idea for a 17-year-old trying to survive in a world full of adult criminals. I recall the first time one of these packets was slid under my cell door. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Initially I thought it was one of the many useless things provided by mental health staff members to inmates in solitary. In my years of imprisonment I can’t count the number of times some dullard or other with a saccharine smile has come to my cell door, as I paced to and fro with a threadbare blanket across my shoulders, and inquired as to whether I needed anything. Do I need anything? Yeah, grab a pen, I’ve got a list of things for you. Start with fresh air and sunshine. Do I need anything!

It is usually at this point that the person will scurry off, but not before sliding a word search under the cell door (look for the fruit! How stimulating! Later, when the prisoner is contemplating slamming his head into the wall, he can instead cut the ennui with more ennui—THIS is the culmination of centuries of Western psychology: a fruit-themed word search provided to the man in despair).

But the Cage Your Rage packet was in fact intended as a core element of my stay in IMU. It seems as absurd to me today as it did then. I’ve been assigned similar series of packets on several occasions in the years since, and each time I find them just as offensive as the last. For one thing, there is something inherently risible in prison officials suggesting to anyone that he needs to improve his communication skills. And to make this suggestion to someone they’ve locked in a cage indefinitely, kept from seeing his friends and family, denied phone access to, and pilfered or delayed the correspondence of, well, such impudence would make a whore blush. These people are nothing if not good actors.

Another aspect of these packets—particularly Cage Your Rage, as implied by its title—that always offended my sensibilities is that they presuppose the prisoner has an anger problem. It is often the case that he does, which of course is attributable to a combination of biological and environmental factors. What’s strikingly clueless on the part of prison officials is that many of their policies and practices contribute to the anger problems of a high number of inmates. It is a sick game to prod and poke a human being with sticks and then hand him a “self-help” packet. This is precisely what occurs when the DOC assigns these absurdities to prisoners in solitary confinement.

We’re here to help you, seriously.

“The committee has put your release on hold.”
“But why? I finished the last packet two weeks ago.”
“Some of the things you wrote are a little disturbing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Right here, for instance. You were asked to describe what triggers your anger. You wrote ‘The ignorance and fatuity of the spiritually and morally bankrupt creeps who put me in a cage and then forced me to describe for them what is wrong with me—with me!’ They’re considering writing you up for it.”
“But I was simply answering the question.”
“You know what your problem is, Pedersen?”
“Oh, but I have several of them. One of them is leaving spittle on my cell door at the moment.”
“Your problem is you’re not as fucking smart as you think you are.”
“You seem angry again.”

Fragments of these conversations have been lost over the years, others modified a bit, but I’ve always kept their central features floating about in my mind. What is most striking about them—and there have been several over the years—is that nearly all of them took place between myself and a either a counselor or mental health staff member.

In her 2004 study of a prison here in Washington state, Lorna Rhodes writes of mental health workers that their job, in a sense, is to protect prisoners “from the prison itself” (Rhodes 2004). It is easy to understand and appreciate what she was getting at, but Rhodes misses a crucial point: namely, that prison mental health workers are in many ways complicit in the harm visited upon the prisoners. And it goes well beyond the clueless, somewhat condescending “Do you need anything?” These staff members are in fact instrumental in the distribution of Cage Your Rage and similar packets.

Recently, WDOC Director of Mental Health Karie Rainer—who has a doctorate, possibly from one of the prestigious online universities which over the course of the last 20 years have popped up like strip malls and prisons—had this to say about the decision to assign Cage Your Rage to prisoners in IMU:

Earlier in the pandemic the number of people accessing DOCART [7] reduced due to social distancing requirements. This extended the amount of time those people on the waiting list would have to wait in order to gain access to this valuable, evidence-based program. The mental health staff who work in restrictive housing at WSP did some research and suggested that they could offer ‘Cage Your Rage’ (CYR) as an alternative. While not considered evidence–based, it is a well-regarded program to address aggressive behavior for incarcerated people. CYR is briefer and therefore more people are able to complete the program in a shorter amount of time.  The decision about which program to require of people on Max Custody is made by the Max Committee, chaired by Tim Thrasher. I do not make those decisions by myself. I help to facilitate access to CYR when the committee makes the recommendation, since it is a program offered by mental health staff.” (December 21, 2020 email on file with WDOC Public Records Unit)

A program (our ubiquitous friend, the program!) offered by mental health staff. With such programs, and apples and oranges to look for, it’s a wonder the recidivism rate remains so high.

Therapeutic artwork from the Cage Your Rage curriculum

There is another way that these packets are used as a pretext to keep prisoners housed in solitary indefinitely. Not only is the prisoner often made to wait before he may begin doing the packets, but generally he is permitted to do just one packet every two weeks. This was true in the Oregon Department of Corrections as well, at least until 2013 [8].

Having completed the first program assigned to me by the WDOC, I was transferred in 2014 from the IMU at Monroe Correctional Complex to IMU South at WSP and assigned another program, this one called ACT (the meaning of which escapes me at the moment, but I’m sure it’s sufficiently asinine). When I inquired as to when I might begin the program I was informed there was a waiting list. Evidently six inmates at a time would be escorted to a room, chained to very expensive chairs conveniently sold by Correctional Industries, and provided edification, Soviet style, by a morally upright counselor whose only rectitudinous blemish was that he just happened to perpetuate the misery of caged human beings for a living. Other than that, he had much to impart to the nescient prisoners.

A political cartoon features Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Steven Sinclair holding the logos of various progressive non-profit criminal justice reform organizations in his left hand and the accoutrements of solitary confinement and its systemic reinforcements on his right. Words above the Secretary read: "The Washington Department of Corrections' left hand knows what its right hand is doing."
WA DOC Secretary Steve Sinclair is featured in this cartoon, the details of which are explained here.

When I asked how long of a wait I was facing I was told at least several months. There were cracks in the program. In the meantime, I had radio [9] programs to listen to, the food service program to participate in thrice daily (assuming the squirrelly fellers didn’t sneak by unannounced with the food as they are wont to do), the pacing program, and the “stare at the four walls as they close in and regret every decision you ever made in your life that caused you to fall into the clutches of benighted savages in cheap suits who toss human beings into solitary confinement as casually as other bureaucrats use staplers” program.

If prison officials were sincere in their desire to help prisoners overcome whatever anger issues they might have, rather than assign packets such as Cage Your Rage, they would do well to stop thinking altogether of cages as solutions to perceived problems. But of course that isn’t what they want, and therein lies the great distinction between themselves and the arbitrary punishers of the classical world. For though the Greek gods were motivated by lust, anger, jealousy, and other base instincts, they at least acknowledged as much and did not veil their punishments behind pseudo-scientific jargon.

If only we were half as enlightened as those monsters.

“For ‘punishment’ is what revenge calls itself; with a hypocritical lie it creates a good conscience for itself.”
– Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

(Footnotes for this essay can be found here.)

References

  • Andersen, H. 1856. I Sverrig. Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel.
  • Baker, M. (2019, Nov. 16). Prison’s Tips for Inmates in Solitary. The New York Times.
  • Brownfield, C. (1965). Isolation: Clinical and Experimental Approaches. New York: Random House.
  • Dickens, C. (1842/1985). American Notes. London: Penguin.
  • Fisher, L. et al. (2016). Correcting Food Policy in Washington Prisons. Mountlake Terrace, WA: Prison Voice Washington.
  • Grassian, S. 1983. Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement. American Journal of Psychiatry. 140: 1450–54
  • Haney, C. 1993. Infamous Punishment: The Psychological Consequences of Isolation. National Prison Project Journal, 8(spring): 3–7
  • Hinkle, L. and Wolff, H. 1956. Communist Interrogation and Indoctrination of ‘Enemies of the State’. AMA Archives of Neurology and Psychology, 76: 115–74.
  • Rhodes, L. 2004. Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • State v. Miller, 61 Wash. 125, 111 Pac. 1053 (1910).
  • Suedfeld, P. (1969). Introduction and Historical Background. In Sensory Deprivation: Fifteen Years of Research, ed. John P. Zubeck. New York: Appleton-Century-Crafts.
  • Touch, H. 1992. Mosaic of Despair: Human Breakdowns in Prison. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Vernon, J. 1965. Inside the Black Room. London: Souvenir Press.

Suggested Reading

Punishing Relations – How WA DOC’s hidden costs and collateral damage imprison families

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.

Is a One-Size-Fits-All COVID-19 Prevention Protocol Working in Correctional Settings?

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic mainstream media coverage of how the virus affects prison populations has focused primarily on the rapid spread of the virus and any deaths that have resulted, both among prisoners and staff. There has been less coverage of how individual prisoners and staff members feel about the public health protocols established by the Center for Disease Control and the Washington Department of Health for use in a correctional setting. This post presents the perspective of one 40-year-old prisoner housed at Washington State Penitentiary, which is currently experiencing a large COVID-19 outbreak in several living units. We do not intend to imply that this perspective will reflect the views of all prisoners, but it does reflect the views of many prisoners we have heard from who have experienced one to two months of cell confinement quarantine and/or isolation. The ultimate lesson that society as a whole may learn from this pandemic is that a one-size-fits all protocol is not necessarily effective for all demographics, and may cause additional harm for some demographics, most especially in a prison environment where there are cultural, logistical, and architectural barriers to the sorts of public health protocols that may work well enough in other settings.


I write these words from a cell in quarantine, my second time here in the last five six weeks or so. In between stays I was confined to my cell on my housing unit, which has been locked down for over a month now. It is easy to dismiss as a trifling matter the confinement of a human being, for over a month and counting, to a concrete box—unless you happen to be one of the human beings so confined. The day-to-day grind of life when you’re stuck in such a situation takes a toll on the physical and mental health of the best of us, in ways too subtle to properly convey. Suffice it to say that the hardship is real, it is immediate, and presently it is being inflicted upon hundreds of prisoners across the state (quite apart from those made to languish in solitary confinement as a matter of course, even under “normal” circumstances—but that is a subject for another time).

Much of what led to this mess—and no mistake, this is a capital mess—is what also led to the confusing, inconsistent, terribly harmful situation affecting those in society: the decision on the part of many to imbibe the fear poured on a daily basis by ambitious politicians and their shills in the media; a near-universal failure to soberly assess the data, while, with a straight face, telling others to “follow the science”; and an ignorance of the damage wrought by measures intended—ostensibly, anyway—to alleviate suffering.

There exists an added element to the situation in here, however; it is that many of the harmful things done by prison officials this past year were done at the behest of public health agencies and members of the public who meant well, but who were largely driven by fear. At some point it becomes necessary to critically examine the actual threat posed by the corona virus, the real data concerning its potential for harm, and what the wisest course of action is at the present time. This examination should be free of political and social biases, which hitherto have plagued nearly every facet of the pandemic.

It is almost a certainty that such an objective analysis would result in the realization that we failed to properly judge the corona virus, or to really even consider what harm we might be causing in the efforts to fight it (incidentally, this “fight” against yet another unseen foe, led by slick, pretentious, politicians drawn to the limelight like moths to a flame, is redolent of the “wars” against drugs and terror—neither of which turned out very well).

We would never consider for a moment disrupting our lives—some might say nearly ruining—as we have done for nearly a year now, on account of the flu. Yet an objective, meaningful assessment of the present situation leads one to the conclusion that, if the corona virus is in fact deadlier than the flu—something difficult to ascertain because of the tallying as COVID-related those deaths resulting from other causes, including the flu—it is not deadlier by far.

In any case, the facts certainly do not warrant the hysteria on which many of us have seemingly thrived for the past several months, and it is precisely this hysteria that lies at the heart of the situation in which we find ourselves at present (and we are all in it, though I think I may be forgiven for pointing out that some of us are a little deeper in it).

Much of what resulted would have likely occurred anyway, and none of the preceding should be construed as stating that public health officials and advocates are responsible for the present plight of prisoners. Such an assertion would be manifestly unfair. However, it is probably true that a good deal of the pressure placed on the DOC by public health officials and advocates to do something, anything, has had unintended consequences which perhaps should have been foreseen.

Almost invariably the DOC’s approach isn’t to do something meaningful, but rather to give the appearance of doing something meaningful. Its handling of the pandemic has been no exception. Many of the measures taken by prison officials may look good on paper, but then so do Communism and the Correctional Industries mainline menu. The reality has been quite different for prisoners. This reality has included, among many other ridiculous things too numerous to list: (1) Having limited access to outdoor exercise, even during those periods this year when we were not lockdown entirely, as we are now seeing; (2) an apoplectic guard who was not wearing a mask scream at inmates to put on their masks, as they were on the phone talking with friends and family; (3) being taken to quarantine the day before one’s scheduled wedding because one’s cellmate—gasp!—happened to walk by another inmate who was not infected but lived on a unit with several positive cases; (4) not seeing or touching your loved ones for nearly a year, even though staff members have been permitted to enter these facilities, interact with prisoners for eight hours, leave, and come back the next day to repeat the process (I don’t have children, but I can imagine how difficult it must be to not see one’s kids for an entire year, or how hard it is for the parent or guardian in the free world to explain to the child why s/he cannot see mom or dad for what must seem like ages; (5) having your unit locked down for over a month, during which time meals are hours late because medical staff members are going door to door taking the pulses, every day, of all the inmates—even those who are young, healthy, experiencing no symptoms, and who’ve tested negative several times in previous weeks; (6) showering and making phone calls just once or twice a week; (7) high blood pressure, anxiety, heart palpitations, and any number of other ailments concomitant—depending on the individual and her or his disposition—to living in a box 24 hours a day; (8) having medical staff sweep to the side various non-COVID health issues because management has taken the position that COVID prevention (an impossibility) and treatment (nearly an impossibility, considering the nature of our captors) are paramount etc., ad nauseam.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the idea of confining hundreds of individuals to a building with a communal ventilation system, preventing them from going outdoors for fresh air and exercise, and encouraging poor hygiene by limiting showers to just once or twice a week, well, to say it’s myopic would be to lend it credit it hardly deserves. It was madness when it was suggested, it was madness when it was implemented, and it is madness now, as I write these words from my stuffy concrete box in quarantine.

It is probable that one or two or 10 readers will opine to themselves “Well, I’m sure he’d change his tune if he were to contract the virus” (there is a spiteful creature in every bunch, and this pandemic has hardly brought out the best in us). The screwy “logic” of this sentiment aside, what I will say is that I have contracted it. I write the above having been told several days ago that I tested positive. Curiously, I’d gone all year without contracting it (at least to my knowledge), and it wasn’t until I’d been confined to my cell for over a month of quarantine—and tested negative five times in that period—that I got it. So did 50 other people on my unit alone. So much for the preventive measures of the DOC.

In closing, I think it’s important to stress the need for assessing things in a practical manner and determining a course of action not on how we think things should work, but the way we know—from our experiences in dealing with these nocuous bureaucrats—how they will actually work. It is rarely a good idea to make decisions based on fear, or to induce others into making such decisions. But this is precisely what many of us have done since COVID-19 entered our lives early this year, and we don’t seem to have learned too many lessons from the mistakes that should be obvious to us all. We should learn from our mistakes, and remember that we needn’t remain tied to them. This pandemic will eventually be a thing of the past. In the meantime, let us exercise care so that we don’t cause harm in its name.

-Joey Pedersen, Washington State Penitentiary, December 2020

WA DOC Prison Labor Model Amplifies COVID-19 Vectors & Outbreaks

On December 15, 2020, a Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) associate superintendent told families of WSP prisoners during a COVID-19 Local Family Council informational Microsoft Teams meeting that WSP leadership has not been authorized by the WA DOC headquarters Unified Command to make exceptions during the pandemic to policies that punish prisoners with major infractions if they refuse to work. (See WAC 137-25-030, Violation 557 – Refusing to participate in an available work, training, education, or other mandatory programming assignment.) At least some prisoners who are currently on quarantine lockdown at WSP are being asked to leave their cells and potentially expose themselves or others to COVID-19 by carrying out regular assigned job duties, to include serving food to other prisoners on quarantine lockdown. Reportedly, some prisoners are being asked to work far more hours per day than would be their usual assignment—up to ten hours a day in some cases.

When families expressed concern during the meeting about DOC knowingly creating new COVID vectors by having prisoners who are supposed to be in quarantine lockdown leave their quarantine cells to physically move around in areas that will create two-way exposure to other prisoners and staff members, the associate superintendent had the following things to say:

It is a policy. If they receive an assignment, and they refuse, it is policy. We rely on the incarcerated population to help us with that work. We are hemorrhaging staff. We are responsible to make sure that incarcerated individuals eat. How do you suggest that we make sure everyone eats? It is the expectation of anyone who supervises me for me to uphold policy. We are reliant on incarcerated individuals to help us work. There’s no two ways about it.

When asked how the prison staff members are faring during all of this, the associate superintendent conceded that he, all of his staff members, and all of the prisoners with whom they work feel tired, tense, and strained. Clearly, something about mass incarceration in Washington state and/or WA DOC emergency preparedness plans appears not to be working. As this blog post is being written, over fifty new positive COVID cases in WSP’s medium security quarantine lockdown units are sending prisoners packing up their boxes tonight to move to isolation units. Interestingly, in cases where a prisoner has tested positive and his cellie has not, WSP appears to be considering assigning new prisoners as roommates to the cellie who is left behind, knowing full well that the cellie has been living with someone who has now tested positive. The prison labor model may not be the only COVID vector WA DOC is knowingly creating.

Here is what Joey Pedersen, a prisoner who has spent over a month in quarantine lockdown at WSP, has to say about WA DOC’s labor model and COVID-19:

One of the many sordid aspects of the DOC’s response to COVID-19 is that DOC has, in numerous instances, infracted prisoners for refusing to work. In other words, while on the one hand claiming that the pandemic is so serious that visitation must be shut down for a year, outdoor exercise drastically curtailed, hundreds of prisoners tossed into solitary confinement (often without so much as a book to read), and entire units placed on lockdown so that inmates are afforded opportunities to shower and use the telephone just a couple times each week (if they’re lucky), prison officials are, on the other hand, requiring prisoners to come out of their cells and work around others, often for upwards of 10 hours each day. For sheer effrontery, it’s difficult to surpass this.

It’s worth noting a couple of things here. One of them is that it is probably true that the majority of prisoners are not concerned about COVID, believing that, while it is highly contagious and can–in relatively few cases–prove fatal, it is not as serious as the media have led us to believe, and the DOC’s response to the pandemic has been terribly inconsistent and has caused more harm than good. Not all prisoners feel this way, of course, but from all the information I have personally gathered this past year, it is probable that far more inmates believe this than disbelieve it.* The validity of such a position is not important here. What’s important is the frustration on the part of the prisoners who feel as though their captors have used the pandemic as a pretext for taking what few privileges and rights were left them in the first place.

Another thing that needs to be made clear is that what the DOC is perpetuating when it compels prisoners to work, using various means, is slavery. We can call it by whatever name we like. It’s slavery all the same, pretty dress or no. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution makes slavery in prisons legal, and the Washington State Legislature—through both inaction and the creation of RCW 72.60.110—has failed to establish a more humane and ethical standard for Washington state.

If as a society we are going to condone slavery, we should summon whatever decency may be left us and at least acknowledge that’s what we’re doing. We may say it’s justified because the slave robbed or killed someone, sold illicit substances, or whatever the case may be, but that slope is awfully slippery; whatever the case, we should call it what it is, just as the lawmakers who authorized it should have called it by its name.

What makes the present situation so troubling is that the DOC isn’t simply forcing inmates to work; it is forcing them to work in what prison officials claim is an environment so dangerous that entire units must be locked down. They are causing inmates to expose themselves to a virus that their official line claims is running rampant throughout the prison population. If the DOC is to maintain any credibility whatsoever with the public–something many of us do not believe possible–it must alter an unconscionable stance that simply cannot be defended.

If any good may come from this contretemps, let it be this: light is cast on the practice of modern American slavery, a vestige of a shameful past that our legislators should no longer be permitted to ignore.

* Viewed objectively, it is difficult to maintain the media line when one considers that, if COIVD were half as serious as it’s been made out to be, these facilities would long ago have been ravaged. They’re essentially sardine tins, and it’s not a question of “if” but “when” prisoners will get exposed to COVID. Nearly a year into the pandemic we have seen relatively few deaths among the prison population (low single digits), which data–even if accepted at face value–simply do not comport with the hysterical position of the media and government. This is why the majority of inmates are not overly concerned about COVID. This does not in any way minimize the fact that there is a highly contagious virus that can prove fatal in older and less healthy individuals. It’s simply a sober assessment of the data.

Hand drawn prisoner comic showing stick figure prisoners in ball-and-chain on hands and knees pulling a Department of Corrections sleigh, taking instruction from a correctional Santa Claus.
“DOC Claus”, Fog Line, by Joey Pedersen
Hand drawn prisoner comic showing a quarantined stick figure prisoner shackled to a wall giving a nurse a piece of his mind as she asks whether he has COVID symptoms.
“Quarantine”, Fog Line, by Joey Pedersen

Another Documented Case of Retaliation in WA DOC

The Office of Corrections Ombuds recently found and reported on evidence of retaliation at WA DOC’s Reynolds Work Release site. WA DOC has provided a response here, in which it states that “‘Retaliation’ is not in alignment with the Department’s values. The Department is incorporating the definition of the term ‘retaliation’ as well as examples into annual required training by all corrections staff. Assistant Secretary Armbruster will be meeting with all work release supervisors to discuss ‘retaliation’ and stress the importance of zero tolerance of retaliation within work release facilities.”

In this post, we look at what is known about retaliation in WA DOC and what a person might do to mitigate it.

Retaliation and Efforts That Backfire

  • Regardless of what supervisory staff may say, retaliation occurs in WA DOC, just as it occurs in all large organizations. (See documented examples of retaliation in WA DOC here.) Retaliation happens between coworkers in WA DOC, between staff and prisoners, between staff and prisoner’s visitors, and between prisoners and other prisoners. Retaliation can occur because someone felt slighted, humiliated, undervalued, or tattled on. Retaliation is hard to prove because it often takes the form of someone behaving in a way that is technically allowed by policy, but that is markedly imbalanced or biased in how it is applied, or is radically different from previous ways of behaving. It is typically cumulative, which is to say that many small policy-approved behaviors accumulate over time to intimidate, harass, remove, or “build a case” on someone. Using policy-approved behaviors in an excessively frequent or bullying manner is undeniably retaliation, but few WA DOC supervisory staff are willing to openly acknowledge this.
  • Sometimes retaliation is inevitable when raising a complaint with WA DOC staff and supervisors. Weighing the pros and cons leads many to avoid raising complaints, since precious things can be irretrievably lost when retaliation is severe, and when the impossibility of proving it precludes any sort of justice or corrective action. However, if we are all too paralyzed by fear of retaliation to act, we become complicit in condoning the very culture that harms us. It’s a tough balance to strike, especially in situations where individuals are stuck living, working, or visiting in one small prison community for a very long time. If retaliation does occur, it is difficult to determine if supervisors are taking it seriously. As previously stated, most staff disciplinary actions happen quietly, out of view from the aggrieved, and protections written into union collective bargaining agreements (PDF pg. 25) and prisoner grievance manuals (PDF pg. 12) ensure that most staff disciplinary records are kept sealed or are expunged after one year, if they are recorded at all.
  • Risk of retaliation can sometimes be reduced (but also can sometimes be exacerbated) by some of the following methods—if nothing else, these methods at least leave a more public paper trail when documenting retaliation:
    • CC’ing a supervisor or outside official (such as a legislator, union representative, attorney, or ombuds) in email communications with staff.
    • Requesting that a staff person from WA DOC headquarters come to a local prison facility to meet with you and a local facility staff person to resolve an issue.
    • Bringing in an outside conflict resolution expert.

WA DOC COVID-19 Response

For those wanting updates on DOC’s Corona virus response, here is DOC’s official (and evidently regularly updated) response info, as well as the Office of Corrections Ombuds COVID-19 resource page, which contains notes from a group phone meeting held with concerned families of prisoners on March 13, 2020. This WA Corrections Watch post was last updated on March 14, 2020 at 1:18 PM.

Things families and supporters have been hearing from prisoners at Monroe Correctional Complex:

  • No systematic protocols for screening staff have been developed.
  • Hand sanitizer, bleach, and many other virus-combating hygiene and cleaning supplies are considered contraband and are therefore not allowed in the possession of prisoners.
  • At least one staff person is reported to believe that Coronavirus is a hoax meant to damage President Trump’s political future.
  • At the WSRU unit prisoners from a quarantined unit are reported to have been allowed to have contact with prisoners from a non-quarantined unit.
  • Prisoners say staff are not being told that they can receive compensation if they need to take more than the usual approved leave for illness.
  • College programs and visits from prisoners’ families have been cancelled until further notice.
  • At least one prisoner is reported to have been held past release date in facilities imposing quarantine lockdowns.
  • There are concerns about insufficient prisoner access to immune-boosting nutrients and healthy, whole foods in WA DOC prisons.

A UW PhD candidate who has a loved one in the WA DOC system has created this form letter template for people to use when contacting legislators, the Governor’s office, DOH, etc. about Corona Virus response concerns:

Dear XXX,

On March 13, 2020 all prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory Unit in Monroe received notification that a guard who works on the A&B side of the prison tested positive for COVID19. According to the letter sent to prisoners the guard was last in the prison on March 8th. The letter to the prisoners was dated for March 12th and passed out on the morning of the 13th. A&B side will be locked down until March 22nd.Bleach and alcohol based hand sanitizers are considered contraband in the prison. Only porters are authorized to use bleach. The only cleaning supply provided is an “all purpose cleaner” that is so mild it is safe to drink. The prison is not providing people with extra rags or cleaning supplies. The DOC has told prisoners to put socks on the public pay phones to protect themselves from shared germs.There are currently upwards of 1,400 people 60 years and older incarcerated in Washington State.Given the deplorable history of medical care at Monroe (and in prison in general) it’s important that legislators such as yourself are prepared to hold DOC accountable and ensure they are providing incarcerated people with proper medical care. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make alcohol based hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, cleaning rags, latex gloves, surgical masks (for those who are sick) etc available for free and NOT considered contraband
  • Establish a quarantine location that is not in the living units and is NOT solitary confinement
  • Prepare the hospital with necessary medical equipment such as ventilators
  • Prepare to transfer those who are high risk into free world medical care
  • Have additional trained medical staff who are not DOC work with the DOC to treat patients
  • Enable the calling function on incarcerated people’s JPay tablets so that they do not need to use public phones (as of now, they’re putting up signs telling folks to put a sock over the phone if they need to)
  • Set clear limitations on the use of solitary during this time
  • Set clear limitations on the overuse of lock down during this time
  • Test all guards and staff who enter the prison
  • Make tests widely available

This is a crisis. There are tens of thousands of vulnerable people locked up and in the state’s care. Something needs to be done immediately.

Thank you,

A prisoner at MCC just sent me this on JPay: “Apparently this coming week is Sunshine Week, and TVW is highlighting what the Public Records Act means to Washingtonians.” Perhaps in honor of Sunshine Week (my new favorite week! I had no idea it existed…) we could all make some public records requests from DOC, perhaps pertaining to its Corona Virus response or its work with Vera Institute on solitary confinement reform? Or any other endless number of topics of concern… For anyone who has never tried doing this, here’s a guide.

Meeting With a State Legislator on Lobby Day? Quiz Them on WA DOC Leadership Expertise

Lobby Day is coming up on MLK Jr. Day and many constituents who would like to see reforms in WA DOC will be meeting with their legislators. It helps to have some key talking points planned out to make the best use of the brief appointments one might make with a Washington State senator or representative. We’ve put together an analysis of historical and current WA DOC expertise to give constituents some additional concrete details for their talking points. Happy lobbying!

When (and Why) Did WA DOC Prisoners Lose the Right to Wear Personal Clothing?

As documented in Greenhalgh v. Dep’t of Corr. (2014), WA DOC eliminated the right of prisoners to wear personal clothing in 2009. (See also DOC 440.000 and these early revisions of WA DOC 440.050 State-Issued Clothing/Linen.) As this Court of Appeals decisions states:

“In January 2009, DOC informed its inmates that it amended DOC 440.000 to eliminate inmate possession of excess or unauthorized personal clothing items by January 2010. Inmates had the following disposition options: (1) between July 1, 2009 and September 30, 2009, inmates could send out the clothing at DOC’s expense; (2) through December 31, 2009, inmates could give the clothing to a visitor; or (3) after December 31, 2009, inmates had 30 days to dispose of excess or unauthorized clothing. If an inmate was indigent, refused to pay postage, or failed to designate someone to receive the clothing, DOC donated or destroyed it. After January 1, 2010, all unauthorized personal clothing became contraband.”

All this after WA DOC promised hunger-striking prisoners at Washington State Penitentiary in 1999 that personal clothing would not be taken away. Was there a reason after so many decades that WA DOC staff suddenly couldn’t tell prisoners apart from non-prisoners and had no choice but to make this change? Or was this a chance for Correctional Industries to deepen their monopoly on captive consumers? Does having prisoners wear designated clothing make staff more or less vigilant about keeping track of where prisoners are and are supposed to be? Your guesses are as good as ours…

The Report Cards WA DOC Gives Itself

How would those who live, visit, and work at WA DOC prisons rate those facilities? And how would that compare to WA DOC headquarters report card ratings? Try your hand at it. Think of a WA DOC facility. Give it a grade in all of the following areas: (1) operations review (IT, security, disciplinary processes, food services, “offender” management, secured housing, searches & evidence, staff safety & accountability) and (2) health services (general, infirmary, medications, health records, restricted housing). Now compare your grades to WA DOC’s grades, which it reports in its facility-specific Operations Review Reports…