Report: Wash. officials must improve prison food, health care in response to inmate protests
Officials plan to use the report to make changes focusing more on preparing prisoners for re-entry
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington corrections officials should improve health care and food quality in state prisons and provide more opportunities to better prepare inmates to re-enter society, a new report recommends.
The annual report is the first of its kind by the Washington Office of Corrections Ombuds. The office opened last year and is intended to provide independent oversight for the state Department of Corrections (DOC).
The report, released Friday, lands as DOC juggles a variety of crises.
Seven deaths at the Monroe Correctional Complex have raised concerns about health care. Inmates in other prisons have gone on meal strikes in recent years to protest the quality of food. Meanwhile, DOC continues to have difficulty correctly calculating the sentences of prisoners.
In its first 10 months, the Ombuds office received 2,002 complaints about DOC, according to the report, and ultimately decided to review nearly half of them.
One in five complaints involved health care which the report describes as the office’s “largest area of concern” with DOC. An additional, smaller portion involved mental-health issues.
Gathering that much information on the various issues “really has brought a light into the corrections world,” said Joanna Carns, director of the Ombuds office.
The report detailed several cases where the office helped inmates get better health care from DOC.
In one case, the Ombuds office got DOC to return a nebulizer it had taken from a prisoner with severe asthma, after concerns the inmate was abusing it.
In another instance, DOC stopped providing a special diet for a prisoner who needed it to help with an ulcer, or else the inmate would vomit. After the Ombuds office reviewed the case, prison officials corrected the diet.
Among other recommendations, the report suggests DOC focus more on preparing prisoners to re-enter society, and make it easier for inmates to communicate with their families.
It also said the agency should take a more gender-responsive approach to account for women and those in the LGBT community, who are confined in a prison culture largely geared toward a population of straight men.
In a statement, DOC spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said the agency has a “commitment to operate a safe and humane corrections system and to partner with others to transform lives for a better Washington …” The agency, she said, is reviewing the recommendations and would provide a more detailed response soon.
Earlier this year, DOC fired the top doctor at the Monroe Correctional Complex, citing the treatment of six prisoners, including three who died. Several cases of inadequate medical care are being reviewed, including a total of seven deaths at the facility.
Meanwhile, prisoners around the state in recent years have conducted meal strikes in protest of food that inmates say is poor quality and low in nutrition.
Five inmates sued DOC last week after being put in solitary confinement amid the most recent of those meal strikes, at Clallam Bay Corrections Center.
Corrections officials also continue to struggle to properly calculate prison sentences for inmates. The latest software issue, revealed this year, caused at least a dozen inmates to be released too early — or held past their release date — and sparked a review of up to 3,500 cases.
The agency oversees approximately 17,450 inmates at a dozen facilities around the state.
As Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers prepare for the legislative session that starts in January, DOC has requested funding to address some of the issues.
The agency has asked for money to improve its health-care services, as well as funding to reinstate hot breakfasts at some of the prisons.
In a statement, Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said the governor plans to meet with prison officials and Carns to discuss the findings and recommendations.
Inslee is “pleased to see that DOC and the Ombuds have worked together to identify and address many issues and make improvements to benefit incarcerated individuals and their families,” wrote Lee in an email.
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