An afternoon at the Washington Corrections Center for Women: Part 2

Click here for Part 1

Sergeant B, the corrections officer who showed me around WCCFW, was probably one of the most interesting, likable women I've met in a while. Authoritative and tough, I felt totally safe as we navigated the different areas of the prison. Her compassion for the offenders was obvious. Everywhere we went, the offenders flocked to her, lining up to ask questions, eager to hear the words of encouragement she never seemed tired of giving.

And this is the thing that, three days later, I remember most about the staff at WCCFW: they really care about the offenders. They really want these women to better themselves. They believe in second, third, and fourth chances. I don't know what I was expecting to see – I suppose I had some Hollywood notion of how awful and terrifying prison would be – but I was genuinely surprised at how wrong I was. I'm told county jail is awful... but WCCFW? Where long-term female offenders – who've been properly classified – do their time? It's not a country club (hell, no!), but it wasn't quite the nightmare I was expecting, either.

First, I should mention that you can't go anywhere in the prison without being buzzed in. I stood in the rain a lot as we went from building to building, getting soaked, while Sergeant B and I waited for whomever was watching us on camera to buzz us through.

The tour started at J Unit – also known as the Baby Wing. At first glance, it looks like the pediatric wing of a hospital. Colorful cartoon murals on the walls. A large and cheerful day room filled with toys and comfy sofas where the mothers and babies could play together. The individual cells, while tiny, were painted in soothing pastel colors, and each one contained a crib, changing table, and a tiny cot where the mother sleeps. It was easy to forget that this was a prison, because the only obvious clue was the manned security booth in the hallway.

The women in J Unit, as in all the units except one, were dressed in standard prison issue – grey sweatshirts and sweatpants, or khaki jeans and shirts. Everyone smiled at me pleasantly as we passed. I got to speak to one offender, in her cell, as she held her baby son. He'll be 7 months old when she's finally released, and she was about 25. She told me she was determined to never see the inside of a jail cell again. And apparently I can believe this, because the recidivism rate for offenders in the "baby program" is only 12%, compared to a state-wide 30% for everybody else.

Sergeant B took me to the trailers next. WCCFW uses trailers for Extended Family Visits (also known as conjugal visits). They're essentially prefabricated homes with 2 bedrooms, a living room with a TV, a kitchen, and a full bathroom. Offenders who qualify for EFVs (they must be Minimum or Medium level) can spend 24-48 hours in a trailer with several members of their family. They'll have total privacy during the visit, except during counts when everybody must be present and accounted for. Groceries must be provided by the family, but linens are provided for by the prison.

Next up was the Close Custody Unit, also known as the maximum security wing. You know what prison looks like in the movies? This was exactly how CCU looked. Picture an extremely large room with a common area in the middle and three stories (tiers) of cells all around the perimeter. On one side, a large metal staircase ran all the way up to the top level. The cells had doors, not bars, with skinny rectangular windows. They're "wet" cells (a toilet and sink is in each one), and each cell can house two offenders (except for one that was customized to accommodate a 700-pound offender – she lost about about 250 pounds while in prison and has since been released). In a windowed booth, a pair of corrections officers were keeping an eye on everything with the help of a bank of computer monitors that showed every angle of the unit.

I obviously wasn't allowed to bring a camera inside, but this picture of another prison's cell block is pretty close to how it looks at WCCFW.

The common area in the center had metal picnic tables with the stools attached. It's a social place, and grooming appeared to be a favorite activity. Since offenders aren't allowed to have tweezers, many had learned the ancient art of "threading", and several ladies were getting their eyebrows threaded. Others were getting their hair braided.

We happened to enter CCU during a "movement", which is the prison's term for the 5-minute supervised walk that offenders are allowed to make moving from one area of the prison to another. Movements happen at mealtimes, visiting hours, before and after classes, etc.

Sergeant B moved me back against the wall as a cluster of offenders made their way back from their GED program classes to CCU. The first thing that struck me about these women? They were so young. Early twenties, most of them. The second thing? Many of them had tattoos on their faces and necks. Some had stenciled letters across their throats which looked like dog collars from a distance, but turned out be boyfriends' names when I got a closer look. Some had blue tattooed teardrops trickling from their eyes and down their cheeks. Other had symbols on their necks and faces I didn't recognize. Sergeant B explained that while there was no gang activity at WCCFW, many of these women were married to, or dating, gang members. Racially, the mixture was fairly diverse – there appeared to be an even mix of Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

The facial tattoos saddened and disturbed me. I have a tattoo – a decent-sized butterfly on my left shoulder – but I can choose when to show it off or hide it. I can't imagine having a tattoo on my face. Maybe they're the nicest young women in the world, but those facial tattoos make a deliberately scary "Don't fuck with me or I'll cut you, bitch!" first impression.

The offenders filed past me with curious eyes. I can't lie, I was uneasy. Nobody was hostile, but I felt like a strange zoo animal, even though they were the caged ones and I was the visitor. They openly checked out my hair, my clothes, my boots. Some smiled. Most didn't. Some stopped to talk to Sergeant B, immediately pouring out their problems to her even though I was standing right there. I wanted to move away to give them privacy, but I didn't want to leave the sergeant's side. In the end, it didn't matter. Offenders have no expectation of privacy, and me being there listening to their woes didn't seem to bother anyone except me.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, where I'll tell you about the Segregation Unit (also known as "The Hole"), prison jobs, and the room that's thought of as "the prison Starbucks".

Click here for part three of this series.

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