Jennifer Hillier

An afternoon at the Washington Corrections Center for Women: Part 3

Mar 23, 2011 | Uncategorized

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

Sergeant B and I headed to Intake, which is where offenders are processed when they first arrive at the prison. All offenders will come from a county jail somewhere else in the state. They’ll arrive in a bus, and will be shackled together according to the highest security level offender. That means if nine offenders are minimum security, and only one is maximum, all ten will be restrained according to maximum security procedures. At WCCFW, this scenario would mean chains around the waist, wrists, and ankles. Pregnant offenders in their third trimester are never put in restraints, and are therefore transported from county jail separately.

While I didn’t get to witness any intakes, this is how it goes:
Once inside the prison, the offenders will all sit in a long, skinny room on a hard, concrete bench. One by one they’ll be strip searched. Fully naked, the prisoners will open their mouths so the COs can check behind their teeth, inside their cheeks, and under their tongues. Their ears will be examined. They’ll lean forward and their hair will be combed through. They’ll raise their arms so the folds of the armpits can be checked. They’ll lift their feet and wiggle their toes. They’ll squat, cough twice, then stand and bend forward, spreading their glutes so the CO can check their private areas. All tattoos, birthmarks, and scars will be recorded.

Once the search is complete, the offenders will take a shower. They’ll be issued one set of prison clothing initially (t-shirt, sweatshirt, sweatpants, underwear, bra, and slippers), and will receive another 4 sets of clothes the following day. They can choose sweats or khakis, or any combination of both.

The offenders will then be fingerprinted and swabbed for DNA. They’ll be assigned their DOC (Department of Corrections) ID number, which is their number for life. No matter how long between prison stints, whatever DOC number they were originally assigned will follow them for the rest of their days.

Once processing is complete, they’ll be transported to the Reception Unit, where they’ll stay for the next 3-4 weeks while they await classification. I got to peek in at the offenders in Reception, and they definitely win the prize for looking the most miserable. They’re just starting their sentence, so they don’t look happy.

I asked the Intake sergeant what the moods of the offenders are like when they first arrive at WCCFW, and she told me that it depends on how many times they’ve been incarcerated before. A third-time offender won’t have much of a reaction to anything. However, a first time offender? Such as, say, a mother of three who had a few too many drinks at the bar one night and killed a man on her way home and is now facing a sentence of 15 years? Her reaction will be totally different… and it’s usually one of utter hysteria and/or despair.

Sergeant B told me that 90% of offenders are in prison due to bad choices. Only 10% are true bad apples.

After Reception, we headed to one of the dining halls, where I got to observe one of the counts. Offenders are counted 4 times a day, at 6 am, 4 pm, 9 pm, and midnight. The prison dining hall looked like a high school cafeteria, except much cleaner (seriously). The offenders were lined up against the wall and their names and DOC ID numbers were logged in. One offender dared to whisper while count was being taken and the CO in charge – a man – yelled at her. During the ten minutes it took to account for everyone, nobody spoke. The quiet was disconcerting.

Next, we went to see the Segregation Unit (also known as “The Hole”). I wasn’t allowed too close a look, not that there was much to see – Segregation offenders are only allowed out for one hour each day, so everybody was locked away. Same setup as CCU (Close Custody Unit) – three tiers of cells. But the common area of this unit was sectioned off into three smaller day rooms instead of one large one, since offenders in this unit aren’t allowed any contact with other offenders.

A lone offender wearing orange scrubs (only Segregation offenders wear orange) stood at the telephone booth. She was 20-something, blonde, and pretty. She stared at me through the glass while she talked. It was the only time she was out of her cell all day. Offenders in Segregation can read books or write letters, but no TVs or iPods are allowed. Meals are eaten inside the cells. 23 hours a day in a tiny cell, guys! Can you imagine? I wondered what the hell she could have done to end up in Segregation. (Sergeant B didn’t know offhand.)

Depending on an offender’s programming needs, they must either be in school, or work. Prison jobs pay 42 cents an hour and everyone, when they first arrive at WCCFW, must spend a minimum of 90 days working in the kitchen. From there they can apply for different jobs. A typical workweek is 30 hours, and an offender can earn up to $55/month, which can buy toiletries and extra food from the canteen. Other jobs include the laundry, law library and regular library (but only for qualified applicants), and janitorial staff. Minimum security offenders with less than 4 years on their sentence may qualify for an outdoor work release program, helping to clean and maintain parks and recreational areas.

The law library was rather impressive. Hardback law books were stacked neatly from floor to ceiling. The librarian told me that the law library is the prison’s equivalent of a Starbucks, minus the coffee. Offender couples who want quiet time together will often request a law library visit at the same time, and then spend a couple of treasured hours giggling and making eyes at each other.

The Visitor’s Room was filled with tables, chairs, and vending machines where you could buy candy, soda, and sandwiches. While I looked around, a family of three arrived for a visit – father, daughter, and son. The daughter, around 13, got cheerfully chewed out by Sergeant B for wearing ripped jeans – a no-no when visiting an offender. The kid should have known better since they come to visit every week. We left before her mother arrived.

Thankfully, I didn’t see any shivs or shanks, but Sergeant B told me that weapons have been fastened out of wire, plastic coat hangers, and pencils. As we passed by the classroom designated for cosmetology, I asked her if she was ever nervous about offenders using shears (scissors) to cut hair. She told me that the only violent incident she can recall was when an offender’s hair was cut too short by another offender. What did the unhappy “client” do? She bit the student hairstylist on the arm, taking out a chunk of flesh. No shears were involved in the assault.

The most popular class at the prison? Horticulture. The most hated? The GED classes, because nobody likes writing essays.

There’ll be one more prison post coming, where I’ll be talking about escape attempts. Because yes, there have been a few, and Sergeant B was kind enough to dish. Stay tuned for part four!

Click here for the fourth and final post in this series.

* * *