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Impending Monroe prison closure leaves inmates, families reeling over the future

caption: The Monroe Correctional Complex is shown on Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Monroe. Three separate protest caravans demanding safety and clemency for incarcerated individuals arrived at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Purdy and the Governor's Mansion at noon on Thursday.
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The Monroe Correctional Complex is shown on Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Monroe. Three separate protest caravans demanding safety and clemency for incarcerated individuals arrived at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Purdy and the Governor's Mansion at noon on Thursday.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Christopher Blackwell heard about closures happening at the Monroe Correctional Complex in May. It wasn’t the first time he'd heard talk of the Washington State Reformatory Unit, the original prison of the complex, closing. But this time it seemed serious, Blackwell, an incarcerated journalist, said.

He could tell it was serious by the disgruntled corrections officers he overheard, who he said felt unheard, upset over the closure decision. They spoke of looking for work elsewhere. By mid-August, the rumors proved to be true.

Washington State Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange wrote in memos to corrections’ staff that prison consolidations would happen around the state, a move primed by a decreasing number of prisoners and $80 million in cuts made to the Washington State Department of Corrections’ budget over the next two years.

On Aug. 12, Strange wrote to staff that the department planned to close all four units of the Reformatory unit at Monroe, resulting in the closure of 830 beds.

“We understand the impacts these decisions create and worked hard to ensure the least impact possible to the daily lives of those who work for the department and those in our care and custody,” Strange wrote.

The reductions at the Reformatory would be “warm closures,” meaning no one would remain in the units and they wouldn’t be staffed, but utilities would continue and it could be reopened later, according to the DOC website.

KUOW spoke with incarcerated people, as well as their families and advocates, who shared a diverse outlook on the closures. While some cheered the reductions as a step toward what they called a much needed prison system overhaul, others worried over where their loved ones would be relocated and if they’d have access to the same programming.

These programs include University Beyond Bars, a nonprofit that offers educational classes to more than 300 students each quarter, and provides a path for incarcerated people to obtain associate and bachelor’s degrees. It’s a program that Blackwell, who became a journalist while incarcerated, said he benefited from.

“I dropped out of school in the ninth grade,” Blackwell said. “Without that program, I would have never ended up becoming a writer and journalist myself.” Since then, he has been able to educate the public about the issues experienced by prisoners through his bylines in publications including The Washington Post and The Marshall Project, he said.

“That kind of program is so valuable to change in dealing with incarceration and how it looks,” Blackwell said. “To lose something like that is heart-wrenching.”

Blackwell said he’s heard a similar mixed response at Monroe. Some viewed the closed prison as a step toward prison reform — that the cost of maintaining and staffing the location could be redirected to reentry efforts. Others felt the closures at Monroe would impact programming founded at the prison years ago.

“I know they’re not closing it for the right reasons, and I know what will be taken away far exceeds the utopian thought that we closed the prison,” Blackwell said. “The programs there took decades to build and what was built ... isn’t an overnight thing.”

DOC spokesperson Rachel Ericson said that the corrections department is “working toward solutions” to maintain incarcerated people’s access to education, treatment, cultural and religious practices, as well as other programming, and they’re working to lessen the impacts of closures.

“It is important to know that a key focus for the department is understanding the possible impacts on incarcerated individuals and the programming they are taking to better themselves and their eventual reentry into the community,” Ericson wrote in an email.

She wrote that every facility has programming opportunities for prisoners, and that Monroe is not the exception.

Vincent Sherrill, an incarcerated person who goes by “Tank,” said he supports the abolition of prisons and is not opposed to closures. However, he said the Reformatory unit at Monroe should not have “been the first target.”

“Other prisons in Washington state have a bad reputation as far as treatment of prisoners and investment in reentry rehabilitation,” he said. “I’d rather see those prisons closed instead of Monroe, which has a reputation of prisoner empowerment. These programs exist at Monroe, led by prisoners and with support of outside community folks.”

Sherrill said some of the programming is being replicated at other prisons — particularly the Black Prisoners Caucus, which has its roots at the Washington State Reformatory and first began as Black Culture Workshops in 1969. The organization works to provide support for Black prisoners, promote cultural growth, and provide tools to incarcerated men and women, according to their website.

“But (those prisons) don’t have the rich history, and are not as close to a good progressive community outside, because that’s what it takes,” Sherrill said, speaking of the volunteers who help with the program’s success. “It’s a tandem and takes a lot of invested, progressive minded community folks who believe in restorative justice and are invested in change and rehabilitation of men inside.”

Mary Helen is a former Washington state Representative and former University Beyond Bars board member who remains active in prison reform. She echoed Sherrill, emphasizing the importance of the organizations already established at Monroe, including the Concerned Lifers Organization, the Black Prisoners Caucus, and the various cultural groups formed there.

Helen pointed to the statistic that 95% of state prisoners will be released at some point, thus requiring the tools to reintegrate into society, and studies that show obtaining additional education and maintaining family connections reduce the likelihood someone would reoffend.

“They will be our next door neighbor sometime,” she said. “To have people come out of prison more educated, treated with respect, given some sense of how to be successful, is a hell of a lot better for the broader community than to have guys come out who are still uneducated, angry, and don't quite know what to do with themselves.”

However, she’s also heard from families distraught over the lack of transparency and uncertainty. She said they’re concerned over their loved ones being transferred far away, and worried over their inability to visit if they’re relocated.

“They're there this week, where are they going to be if they close all of these wings and what's the plan for where these guys go?” Helen said.

Blackwell wasn’t willing to risk being transferred, especially to a prison far from family, so he applied for a transfer to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, about two and a half hours away. It’s a significant move, but a better option than being transferred to eastern Washington prisons, he said.

Those who remain at the reformatory unit as consolidations continue, while typically confined in a single cell alone, are now being double bunked. As a result, prisoners said they were concerned with prison leadership’s decision to commingle people within minimum custody with those in medium custody, and decried the small space they were afforded, according to grievance letters sent to prison leadership, and shared with KUOW.

DOC spokesperson Ericson said until the consolidation, the Reformatory unit was the only facility with a majority of single-man cells, but always had the capacity for two men per cell. That double bunking is standard at every other prison in the state.

In 1978, prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the conditions of their confinement were unconstitutional. In response, the corrections department put forward a consent decree that said they would return the prison population back to single cells, if the prisoners dropped the lawsuit, and they agreed. In the 1990s, Washington State District Court ruled that the state had fulfilled their obligations of the agreement.

In July 2021, a federal lawsuit was filed by JoJo Ejonga Deogracias, who is incarcerated at the Reformatory. It argues that prisoners are being forced into “dangerous overcrowding conditions" once again.

For Loren Taylor, co-chair of the Statewide Family Council and advocate for prison reform, the decision to close portions of Monroe, as well as other consolidation efforts, presents an opportunity to rethink prisons.

She said the closures will help facilitate and fund the Graduated Reentry Program, which would allow prisoners to serve portions of their sentence at home, using monitoring devices. She said the cost of keeping the beds open at the prison, built at the beginning of the 20th century, is expensive.

“It is a challenging situation because it does mean people have to move from what was a comfortable environment for them,” Taylor said. “But the benefit of further being able to reduce the population and allow treatment first should far outweigh the inconvenience.”

Taylor said that prison leadership making reductions at the Reformatory, instead of elsewhere, makes sense to her given the cost of upkeep at the more than century-old building, and the impacts rural prisons have on their economy.

Others, however, still remain unswayed about the closures at Monroe.

“I think all of us who are concerned about this, want to make it clear that we have no problems with the Department of Corrections population going down,” said Helen, the prison reform advocate. “But that doesn't mean that they should just, you know, brush aside what we think is a facility that's working very well for who's there at this point in time.”

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