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Man held in isolation for 274 days and counting after maskless bathroom trip, WA prison report says

J

erell Jackson, an inmate at Stafford Creek prison on the Washington coast, was looking for comfort. His aunt, who had raised him, had died of Covid-19. Jackson craved the sight of a familiar face and scheduled a video visit with a friend living outside the walls of Stafford Creek Corrections Center.

Jackson, 30, had been on the call for about eight minutes, last December, when he was approached by staff who demanded that he had to end the call.

“Why?” he asked.

The corrections officer told Jackson to return to his cell or be pepper sprayed. Video footage provided to KUOW shows a burst of orange spray shot moments later at Jackson’s face. Jackson said he tried to run, and when he was stopped, tried to knock the spray from the officer’s hands.

Advocates and the loved ones of inmates said what happened to Jackson points to a large problem within the Washington State Department of Corrections: an atmosphere of violence and unchecked retaliation, especially against people of color.

Two recent reports from the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, an impartial public office that provides some oversight into what’s hidden behind prison walls, has found that officers escalated encounters and lied in their infraction reports.

The reports detail three incidents in the last year in which Black men were approached by corrections officers for seemingly trivial infractions, and found themselves on the receiving end of pepper spray, assault, and extended solitary confinement.

“The department takes seriously allegations of racial injustice and will address any substantiated allegations with appropriate measures,” wrote corrections spokesperson Jacqueline Coe in an email to KUOW. The corrections department has launched its own investigation into the use of force incidents.

The day that an officer confronted Jerrell Jackson at Stafford Creek was a tipping point for inmates. Seeing staff descend on Jackson, inmates of all races emerged from their cells to defend him. Footage shows seven employees taking on Jackson; witnesses said there were 15 officers total.

The men told corrections staff to keep their knees off Jackson’s neck, Jackson recalled.

“It was a standoff,” Jackson said. “Everybody got tired of what was happening to us.”

By “happening” Jackson meant that employees would harm inmates, “get away with it and charge us with the things that they did to us.”

Last June, another inmate at the prison left his cell for two minutes without a mask, and allegedly didn’t comply when he was told to get one. Stafford Creek corrections officers put the inmate in a headlock and hit him three times in the head with hammer-fist strikes, according to the report.

The Ombuds office determined that staff already had a plan in place on inmates not complying with mask mandates, and should have engaged the man in “educational discussion” first.

The man was taken to the hospital and upon his return, placed in isolation for 274 days and counting as he awaits a custody decision, according to the Ombuds report. Currently, he’s in isolation at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, with orders for him to move to maximum security at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. Before the incident, he was in minimum custody.

“Given that the incident was instigated by [corrections] staff, [we] find it unfortunate that [corrections] policy allows for punishment of the incarcerated individual with no consideration given to [corrections’]’s role in the incident,” the Ombuds office wrote in its report.

No staff were disciplined.

The third incident referred to in a companion report occurred days before Jackson’s video call, when a man left his cell to use the restroom without permission.

He had a frequent need to urinate due to his medication. He said that he had spent hours without a bathroom break, and staff said they needed to secure the bathroom first. Officers approached him after he returned from the bathroom, and a scuffle broke out.

The details are unclear, as video footage did not capture the encounter. But officers pepper sprayed him at least twice, once in the face through a crack in a cell door, causing him to fall backwards, hit his head, and have a seizure.

He went to the hospital and upon his return, was charged with three major infractions. He sat in isolation for two months awaiting his hearing.

This incident prompted rumors, and speculation that the man had died.

The Ombuds office noted the contradiction: Staff were unable to help him pee, but they could respond in force when he went alone. And that in the two minute span between the time the incident began, to the time pepper spray was deployed, it was unlikely any attempts to deescalate were made, the Ombuds office wrote in its report.

The Ombuds office found in all three events, staff escalated the altercations.

In Jackson’s case, the investigation found that three corrections officers wrote similar lies when they wrote in their incident reports that Jackson had threatened them.

The officers wrote that Jackson said: "If you spray me with that, I am going to get you."

"I am coming for you.”

“You will need more back up, and you are going to get your butt kicked.”

But based on an audio recording from the video visit, Jackson never said those things, according to the Ombuds office. Still, the fabrication was written into an infraction report used to determine punishment against Jackson for threatening. As a result, he was transferred to Walla Walla State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison across the state, from Stafford Creek, a minimum and medium security facility.

While the Ombuds Office noted a need for increased deescalation and racial training in its reports, others say the report speaks to a larger need that supersedes training: accountability.

“They can infract people on almost no evidence, and it leaves people inside powerless,” Alex Bergstrom, Community Engagement Specialist with Columbia Legal Services, said. “And that power was abused before the pandemic, but the pandemic has just made everything worse.”

He said the freedom the department of corrections has to charge and convict people of infractions is unchecked.

“They can say whatever they say happened and have a person corroborate it and that’s all they need,” Bergstrom said.

One inmate, present during Jackson’s encounter with corrections officers, said tension had been rising inside Stafford Creek last year. He asked that KUOW not use his name, out of fear of retaliation.

There were fears of Covid-19, he said, and political and racial tension spurred by the presidential election was at a high. He heard guards talking amongst themselves about an impending civil war. That they would passively harass Black prisoners, and casually say things like “hands up don’t shoot” and that putting their hands up would “just make a bigger target.”

“I really felt like some guards were trying to identify and align as much as they could in the Aberdeen location with the mainstream far-right struggle,” he said. “That energy wasn’t projected on any other racial group other than Black prisoners.”

When other inmates broke the rules, there was communication, he said. But when there was a negative interaction with a Black inmate, there was profanity and threats of being placed in isolation, he said.

Michelle Woodrow, president of Teamsters 117, the union representing Washington state corrections officers, said Teamsters working at DOC are trained and expected to treat incarcerated people with respect, no matter their political affiliation.

“As a union we are committed to racial justice and believe that all people, regardless of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, have a fundamental right to be treated with dignity,” Woodrow said in an email.

When inmates saw a hoard of corrections officers surrounding Jackson, a Black inmate, last December, they stepped up to protect him.

It wasn’t an impulse, or even overreaction, the inmate said. It was an act of solidarity.

“It was all races that came out, different religious backgrounds and social groups, seeing the injustice happen and all felt the same in that moment: that what we were witnessing was wrong and we had to stop it,” he said.

But, those who stood up to protect Jackson, the inmate said, were later placed in isolation where they sat for weeks with minimal time out, awaiting hearings on infractions. Some inmates were told the hearings officer, the person who determines the outcomes during infraction hearings, was absent and later stepped down, he said.

For inmates, an infraction can be life changing. It could result in a transfer to another prison away from family, or an escalated degree of custody. It’s factored in when early release is under consideration.

“When something like this happens there's nowhere for anybody to go,” said Loren Taylor, a former state corrections employee and family advocate. Taylor said when inmates or their families do come forward, it’s often followed with retaliation.

Taylor said after she came out in support of inmate families, her client and friend began receiving severe infractions. In an attempt to draw attention to her friend’s treatment, she sent emails to corrections department secretary Stephen Sinclair, and others to Stafford Creek leadership.

“Please help, I need to talk to you,” her emails would begin. They’ve gone ignored.

For family, questions persist.

Shandra Eknes said her younger brother, who was assaulted by corrections officers last summer for using the restroom without a mask, has a documented history of mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress.

She didn’t understand why he remains in isolation to this day, nearly nine months after he took that two-minute trip to the bathroom without his mask.

Eleven time extensions were filed and approved, the Ombuds office found, leaving the man isolated for months.

In March 2020, the department of corrections lowered how long an inmate could spend in isolation, as they await investigations and hearings, 30 days from 47.

“They’re not taking care of these people who can’t take care of themselves,” Eknes said. “(Inmates) have to rely on corrections officers for their safety and instead are being abused by them.”

Bergstrom said the Ombuds report and evidence Columbia Legal Services has seen makes it clear he’s remained in isolation out of retaliation.

“This is the nature of our prison system,” Bergstrom said, referring to violence and retaliation taken against people of color. “This is what it was built for. We can’t modify or train our way out of that history. We need repair for the people in the OCO reports, and we need a whole new community based system of justice.”