An afternoon at the Washington Corrections Center for Women: Part 1

Let me start by saying that the facility doesn't look scary. At all. It's several buildings grouped close together, some newer, some older, and at first glance, it reminded me of a high school or community college. Seriously, if not for the high fence topped with the curly barbed wire, I might not have even realized I was heading to prison.


I entered through the main entrance and was greeted by a cheerful, uniformed man at the reception desk. Since I was there between visiting hours, the place seemed fairly quiet (more about that later). I gave the officer my name, signed a clipboard sheet, stuck my purse in a locker (I got to keep my notebook and pen), and got searched with the electronic wand thing (the name of this device eludes me). I was issued an ID badge that said VISITOR which I clipped to my jacket. The superintendent then came out to greet me, even though I was a good ten minutes early, and we headed a few steps down the hallway to her office.

The thing that struck me right away about the superintendent was her big, welcoming smile and her passion for her job. Her office was spacious and bright, with a separate table for meetings just like this one. I had a list of questions prepared, but realized quickly I wouldn't need to refer to them, because she was very comfortable talking about the prison. Our conversation was natural and easy.

Here's what I can remember from the interview (and I'm making every effort to use layman's terms, because it seems the Department of Corrections has an acronym for everything):

* There are about 850 offenders currently incarcerated at WCCFW. There are eight living units in the prison:

  • Reception: Offenders stay here when they first arrive at the prison in order to be classified. Classification involves diagnosing their medical and psychological health, their programming needs (should they take courses or are they better suited to have a job while incarcerated?), and any personal needs/issues they might have. Offenders will stay in this unit for the first 3-4 weeks of their sentence until classification is complete.
  • Close Custody Unit (CCU): Basically maximum security. The offenders here require a higher level of supervision, either due to the nature of their crime, or due to bad behavior while they were in another unit.
  • Medium Security Unit (MSU): The majority of the offenders reside here. Most are long-term.
  • Treatment and Evaluation Center (TEC): Offenders stay here if they have mental health issues.
  • Segregation:  Basically "the hole". Offenders are placed here if they're in protective custody (meaning they're at risk for being hurt in general population), or if they're being punished due to an infraction while in another unit. Offenders are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. They are allowed zero contact with other offenders.
  • J Unit:  Where the babies are! Offenders who were pregnant at sentencing may qualify for this unit depending on their offense. Mothers get to live with their babies full-time in their cells for up to 30 months.
  • K Unit:  Minimum custody, general population.
  • L Unit:  General population and Community Corrections violators (I forgot to ask exactly what this means).

Other facts:

* 30% of offenders in Washington state will re-offend.

* 90% of WCCFW's offenders will ultimately be released. Only 10% have life sentences without parole, or sentences extending beyond their life expectancy.

* 75% of offender conflicts (arguments and fights between the inmates) are due to drama stemming from romantic relationships between them. While most of the offenders are heterosexual, it's quite common for the women to go "Gay for the Stay", even though they have husbands and children on the outside. The official policy of the prison is that sexual contact between offenders is an infraction, but it happens quite frequently.

During the interview, several employees came into the superintendent's office to fill her in on a crisis situation that was currently happening. The reason the place was so unusually quiet was because it was on lockdown! An offender in MSU (Medium Security) was freaking out and acting violent. She had dragged her mattress into the showers (in MSU the cells are "dry" – showers and toilets are not inside the cells), and then for no apparent reason, she started kicking another inmate and screaming.

The Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT) was sent in to try and verbally calm her down. They weren't successful. There was then discussion about sending in a Quick Response Team (QRT – they wear masks, shields, and body gear), but ultimately the decision was made to use a pepper spray-like device referred to as "CO" on her instead.

I timidly asked one employee what "CO" stood for. He couldn't remember the exact chemical name, but I was told that the spray hurts. It's purposefully designed to inflict pain, and is very effective in getting situations like this under control.

The superintendent asked her staff if they knew offhand whether the offender was the same woman who had "poked children's eyes". Excuse me? She explained to me that they currently had an offender who was a caregiver in her outside life, who liked to stick needles in the eyes of the kids she looked after. The superintendent thought maybe this was the offender who was acting up.

Guys, you really can't make this shit up.

I never did find out whether it was that particular offender who was causing the ruckus in MSU, but later in my visit, I got an update on the outcome. They went in with the CO spray, and when the offender saw it, she suddenly became very cooperative. She wasn't sprayed. Crisis averted. She was sent directly to TEC (the mental health facility) for evaluation.

According to the superintendent, this is all part of your average Friday.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, where I'll tell you all about the tour I took. With the exception of the actual cells in Close Custody and Medium Custody, I got to see everything, including many of the offenders, right up close. I even talked to one.

But I'll say this for now: My first impression of the offenders is that I've never seen so many young women with face and neck tattoos. For some reason I found this really disturbing.

Click here for part two of this series.

* * *