(Section: Washington State; Topic: Social Justice)
"I didn't talk to my dad for 8 years. And I just started talking to him last year. And then he moved." (Anthony Scott, 11 years old, testifying on 1/24/08 before the Washington State House Committee on Human Services in favor of HB 2688.)
"We have an over-crowding situation in our prisons here in Washington State as well as around the country ... not because of the absence of a vigorous transfer program (but) because we hyper-criminalize certain types of behavior. Most notably, we over-criminalize punishment for drugs.... Right now, there are commercial entities that build prisons on "spec", speculating that there will be enough demand with the current drug policies to make these prisons profitable. What I'm saying to you is that this prisoner transfer program literally reduces incarcerated people, well-behaved incarcerated people, to units of barter, units of money. It's a commercial enterprise." (Le Roi Brashears, Washington Association of Churches Religious Coalition for the Common Good, testifying on 1/24/08 before the Washington State House Committee on Human Services in favor of HB 2688).
The use of prison in Washington was quite stable from 1930 to 1980. On any given day during this 50-year period, roughly two persons were incarcerated in a state prison out of every 1,000 people in Washington between the ages of 18 and 49.2... Today, Washington's prison incarceration rate stands at about 6 adults incarcerated per 1,000 -- nearly three times the rate 30 years ago. Assuming no changes to existing laws or additional laws, the CFC currently sees incarceration rates growing roughly another 10 percent by 2019. (Options to Stabilize Prison Populations in Washington, WA State Institute for Public Policy, 2006.) Last week, the House Committee on Human Services heard public testimony on HB 2688, Constraining the Department of Corrections' (DOC) authority to transfer offenders out of State. DOC's position as explained by Dr. Ruben Cedeno, a Department of Corrections (DOC) Deputy Secretary who offered the only testimony in opposition to HB 2688, was that the legislature should not put limits on its ability to transfer inmates. In order to address overcrowding adequately, DOC needs full flexibility to use these transfers without legislative oversight. This morning, Seattle Times reported that DOC will stop transferring inmates out of state and begin bringing them home.
DOC's announcement is a victory for inmates and their families and it is likely that DOC made this decision in response to the proposed legislation and the hearing. This is a victory that can be, at least in part, credited to Nicole Brummit, who lobbied for the legislation. However, if this policy announcement derails HB 2688, it will leave DOC with its current ability to use transfers with a very low level of accountability in the future. Information that emerged in the hearing indicates that DOC's accountability on both in-state and out-of-state transfers should be increased.
Washington state has a burgeoning prison population and continues to invest in new prisons, even though crime rates have been declining. Our newest prison is Coyote Ridge, an $160 million facility that will open later this year. Transfers help keep the public blind to how much more we are investing in prisons instead of in our citizens. They need to be regulated. DOC should not be let off the hook.
The seats in the hearing room filled early, and those arriving shortly before the hearing began lined up to stand against the walls. Speaker after speaker thanked and even blessed the prime sponsor, Representative Roberts, as well as the other sponsors of the bill, sometimes through tears. Several commended the sponsors for their courage in addressing the issue. Speakers included formerly incarcerated people and the parents, grandparents, and children of incarcerated people as well as community advocates.
Approximately 1,200 Washingtonians have been transferred to prisons in Arizona and other states. These transfers often separate family members, making visits and phone calls expensive and rare -- or putting them entirely out of reach. Sometimes they separate parents and young children who have been in frequent contact. They place a heavy financial and emotional burden on families that are already vulnerable.
Kimberly Mays, board member of Post Prison Education Fund, testified that they also provide an incentive for incarcerated people with family ties to break prison rules, as only "model prisoners" are transferred out of state.
Why Transfer? Department Of Correction's Explanation
Out-of-state transfers are being used in Washington as an administrative tool to alleviate prison overcrowding while new prisons are being built.
According to Dr. Cedeno, DOC needs the flexibility to use this tool without legislative constraint in order to best protect the safety of inmates and employees. Cedeno acknowledged that out-of-state transfers are a "tough" policy, interfering both with family relationships and with the rehabilitation of inmates. But overcrowding is dangerous for inmates and DOC employees and "we cannot built prisons fast enough", he said, to deal with it. And, anyway, transfers are a "temporary" policy. At the end of the year, he said, construction of Coyote Creek prison, an $160 million facility in Franklin County, will be completed and incarcerated Washingtonians now living in other states can come home. (1) But "we don't want our hands tied" in the future, he said, as the Forescast Council predicts that we're likely to need 4,000 more beds in the state by 2027.
An Expensive Policy: Do The Benefits Outweigh The Costs?
According to a recent letter from Ronald Ein, Coordinator of Washington's Transition Re-Entry and Reform Coalition to Governor Gregoire, more than 28,900 Washington state children currently have a parent in prison. These children are 5 to 7 times more likely to spend part of their life behind bars than children whose parents were not incarcerated.
As Representative Roberts noted in her introductory remarks, when we see a population of people who we know will face challenges in their lives, "it's incumbent upon us to do our best to give them a good start."
Transfers that separate family members, even those that move inmates within-state or, as James Bible pointed out in his testimony, that separate parents and children who are not in regular contact, harm children and interfere with the ability of incarcerated people to successfully re-enter society once their sentences are completed. These are "expensive" impacts, both for the individuals affected and for society. Separating any family members, regardless of the age, exacts a high price. As a young woman testified, adults benefit from family contact too. Frequent visits and phone calls from her parents were key to her ability to lead a successful life after leaving prison.
Most of the people who testified focused on the costs of DOC's transfer policy, either as they experienced them personally or as they conflicted with state policy of investing in programs that help incarcerated people build and foster social support networks.
Richard Stoddard, a retired law enforcement officer whose stepson is incarcerated at McNeil Island, testified that he saw the high cost of recidivism first-hand during his 28 years as a police officer. "Research demonstrates," Stoddard said, "that close family connections are a critical element of successful reentry into society," he said. "Shipping inmates who already have these close family ties out of state, thus eliminating personal visits with their children, wives, mothers, appears to be completely contrary to this research. Even one repeat offender within our system is very expensive to the state."
Carol Estes, representing the Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy, noted that transfers destroy the networks that we are paying to create. She mentioned last session's SB 6157, which aims to reduce offender recidivism by investing in improved community transition services. Estes works in a program that offers college credit to incarcerated people through Ohio State University. She noted that she has had several students transferred only days before their final exams, causing them to lose the credit for those courses, although they had done most of the work.
HB 2688 focuses on a specific policy: out-of-state transfers of parents of young children. But the testimony given at the hearing, in conjunction with the racial disparities in Washington's criminal justice system, amount to what I think is a strong case that DOC's transfer policy has developed in ways may be influenced by and be helping to perpetuate underlying problems in that system.
Even a quick look at the racial disproportionality in Washington's prison population leads to a conclusion that there's a serious underlying problem. The incarceration rate for white Washingtonians is slightly under 4 in 1,000 adults. For black Washingtonians, the rate is more than 25 in 1,000. This is not attributable to a difference in the rate at which people commit crimes. Illegal drug use, the most common cause for incarceration, is roughly equivalent across races, but at every stage in the criminal justice system in our state: arrest, conviction, sentencing, and release policies, the discrepancy between the punishment received by white people and black people increases.
Incarceration rates that differ so wildly by race naturally lead to a hypothesis that economic and other extrinsic factors, rather than considerations of justice and public safety, may be at least partly responsible for Washington's burgeoning prison population at a time when state crime rates have been declining. As transfers are a key administrative tool for handling a growing prison population in a way that allows its startling increase in both size and color disparity to largely escape public attention, it is valid to constrain their use in order to better keep us focused on ways to deal with our underlying problems.
More American Black Men In Prison Than In College
Incarceration is devastating for families. It is even more so for black families, not only because of how many black families are affected -- amounting in my opinion to a kind of emergency in Washington state, but also because of how history has brought us to this place.
Jim Tharpe, Executive Director of Unity House, noted that "the number of American black families is on the decline. There are more American black men in prison than in college," he said. "And in 10 years there will be more black people in institutions than there were in slavery." Tharp took issue with the bill's definition of the family, noting that slavery stripped African Americans of all family, resulting in a culture where it was common for non-related people to support each other as family members, a legacy that continues today.
James Bible also noted that current prison transfers invoke a history during which people were moved "against their will without any opportunity to be heard from - in the 1800s.... moved, shackled in hands and feet, sent to distant ports of call never to hear from their families again."
Cultural and political factors amplify the harmful impacts of over-incarceration and out-of-state transfers in the black community. But these impacts are society-wide. We would be misguided to believe that, because systemic problems in Washington's criminal justice system disproportionately impact people of color and the poor, they are not dangerous for all people and expensive and destabilizing for society as a whole, that they do not present to us a centrally-important, whole-culture challenge.
Do We Cover Up The Symptoms -- Or Treat The Disease?
During his testimony, Ronald Ein, Coordinator of Washington's Transition Re-Entry and Reform Coalition, expressed the hope "that in a time of declining crime rates... we would have more imaginative ways of dealing with the overcrowded conditions than simply building more prisons and consigning more people to the prison industrial complex."
Carol Estes, who testified last, said this: "What strikes me, coming at the end of all this testimony, is that you've uncovered an issue that people care deeply about, that's hurting a lot of people. And so I want to ask you for the bigger prize. And that is to reconsider your over-reliance on transfers as an administrative method."
Kimberly Mays, a former inmate, offered her life situation as a "living example" of "how the right support can transform lives. I'm a currently a senior at Evergreen State College. I serve on 3 legislative advisory committees, offender reentry is one, and children of families with incarcerated parents. I do a great outreach where 30 people, ex-DOC prisoners, are now actively going to college and living great lives. If one person can impact all those lives, just think what the state can do if we start investing more in our citizens."
It is a beautiful dream, that the profit motive would be taken out of criminal justice, so that whatever distortions it is causing in our state's public policy would end, and so that we would be able to move some of our investment in prisons over to people -- to keep our children, families and communities safer.
Overcrowding is a dangerous condition that puts the prison industry in the news. DOC's ability to transfer at will to alleviate it while new prisons are built may help to keep a veil of invisibility over issues that deserve more, rather than less, public scrutiny. The role of transfers as an administrative tool that helps mask the devastating impact of state incarceration is one of many good reasons to hold DOC to a higher level of accountability in the use of this tool.
1. DOC has awarded a $160 million contract to Spokane-based Hunt/Lydig Joint to build Coyote Ridge, which will be one of Washington's largest prisons. DOC is expanding bed space at four other facilities as well. Other construction projects include 892 beds at the Washington State Penitentiary, 200 beds at Airway Heights Corrections Center, 100 beds at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, 120 beds at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, 80 beds at Monroe Corrections Center and 80 beds at Larch Corrections Center. (Coyote Ridge Prison Expansion to help ease overcrowding, Allbusiness.com, 5/19/2006.)
2. Some key points from the testimony:
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.