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February 5, 2010 -- Pacific Northwest Inlander (WA)

Prison Fight: Eastern Washington Legislators Band Together To Keep The Governor From Closing Pine Lodge. For Now.

By Kevin Taylor

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It's hard to make sense of the news coming out of the Pine Lodge women's prison. It is closing. Or it's not. The state has a secret agenda. Or it doesn't.

The county and the city of Spokane may take it over as a jail. Or they won't.

Even something as seemingly simple and unequivocal as the number of beds inside keeps changing, depending on who's counting.

Despite the cloudy details, however, one thing is clear: Staffers at the prison, residents of Medical Lake and a bipartisan coalition of Eastern Washington legislators aren't going to let Pine Lodge close without a fight.

An estimated 200 people stuffed into the Medical Lake City Hall on Friday -- overflowing, in a stream five deep, into the hallway and all the way to the top of the entry stairs -- to testify at a town hall meeting.

"We have filled up all of the entry forms we brought today," Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, cries out, holding aloft a thick sheaf of paper.

Every single person who testified, in nearly two and a half hours, told the panel of six legislators that Pine Lodge is efficient, effective and the state should not close the only women's prison in Eastern Washington.

But in this monolithic chorus, voices from the women inside Pine Lodge were unheard.

So imagine that you are shackled at your wrists and ankles. Imagine you are sitting on a bench inside a mesh cage in the windowless cavity of a state prison van.

Phyllis Tatsey was in one of those vans, bouncing blind across the state to Pine Lodge from Purdy, the main women's prison at Gig Harbor. At one time the 47-year-old Spokane woman was making $50,000 a year as manager of a weight-loss clinic. She had a car, a house and a problem with drugs that, as part of a long downward spiral, led her to start writing bad checks to keep food on the table for her kids.

Here's what it's like to reach Pine Lodge by windowless van, Tatsey says: "You already feel like a piece of crap. You already feel like you're worth nothing. You wrote all these bad y'know, you're no good to society. You're a piece of crap.

"Your family don't want you. Nobody wants you. Your children don't like you. You're ashamed of yourself. You're ashamed of what you done. You try to hold your head up and act like you're not -- but you are.

"Now you're going to prison and you're really de-clothed and you've got to strip and you are just demoralized completely. And until somebody starts looking at you like you're worth something and you're not that piece of crap until you see that somebody cares, then you start to reach out and the light bulb goes on and you start to change."

Phyllis Tatsey, Alicia Doney, Tanya Headrick. Each of these women has seen the insides of a variety of jails and prisons. Most were just like warehouses, they say. All three tell The Inlander that it was only at Pine Lodge where they were offered tools to change their ways.

"At Pine Lodge, you felt like a human being," Doney says.

That was a rare feeling for the 39-year-old who grew up in a troubled family. She hid booze in her middle school locker to make it through the day, was pregnant for the first time at 13 and suffered molestation, rape and violence from her teen years into adulthood.

She too turned to drugs and then to identity theft and forgery. While Doney had numerous scrapes with the law, she says she's thankful that Spokane County detectives raided her apartment a final time. It saved her from taking her life, she says.

"I had the one last rig of heroin made up that was going to take me. I knew it would. It was full of more heroin than I'd ever done. I was waiting for my daughter to go to school," Doney says. Then came the knock at the door.

Tatsey and Doney are from the Spokane area. Headrick is from the Kitsap Peninsula. They have finished their sentences, but last week, they returned to Pine Lodge -- not in shackles, but as mentors and models of success for the women who are currently incarcerated.

It's part of Therapeutic Community, an intensive 15-year-old program that is highly regarded for its success in rehabilitating offenders.
Recidivism numbers seem hard to come by, but Patricia Robinson, who ran re-entry programs at Pine Lodge until her job was eliminated in July, says that of the 17 most recent graduates, none have re-offended.

Compassionate staff and a smaller prison population help make TC work effectively at Pine Lodge compared to larger prisons, Robinson and the three former inmates say.

There is plenty that seems unclear about the fate of Pine Lodge, which is why the half-dozen legislators from three Eastern Washington districts set up Saturday's town hall.

The prison was on the chopping block a year ago, until legislators caught wind of it. Soon after that, state officials backed off, saying the decision was made in haste.

As a result, the state's Office of Financial Management commissioned a $500,000 study to see where the state could shed nearly 1,600 prison beds and save $12 million.

The report came out in November and said this about Pine Lodge: First, when the DOC shuttered a 242-bed wing at Pine Lodge in June, it counts toward the downsizing, and second, the prison meets all the goals of the DOC Female Offender Master Plan.

So it came as another surprise that -- one month after this report -- DOC once again listed Pine Lodge for closure.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, is mystified. Last week, Brown met with DOC administrators and Gov. Christine Gregoire. As a result, a delay in closing Pine Lodge for at least a year has been suggested.

"I am not clear why there has been expansion of women's facilities in western Washington when we are underutilizing Pine Lodge," Brown says.

The delay also allows exploration of other options, such as the city or county sharing the facility. Spokane County Commissioners Todd Mielke and Bonnie Mager testified at Saturday's town hall meeting that they did not initiate this idea. Plus, they say, Pine Lodge is too small.

"We are looking at a facility of 500 to 600 beds just to replace Geiger with," Mielke says. "Pine Lodge is a critical piece of the criminal justice system regardless who administers it, and the absolute worst thing that could happen is for [it] to be shuttered," he adds to applause from the crowd.

But Medical Lake Mayor John Higgins says he doesn't buy Mielke's assurances and says the city will fight to keep a shared Pine Lodge from becoming a kind of bait-and-switch that turns into a county jail.

Indeed, in a follow-up interview, Mielke says that -- while he would like the state to keep Pine Lodge open as a women's prison -- the county is facing a $250-million price tag to build a new jail.

And if Pine Lodge is closed, he says, "It makes no sense to ask citizens to pay for a new jail when there is a facility that's been shuttered."

Also visit our "WA State News & Activism" section.

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