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Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and exactly a year since the quarantine lockdown of the Washington state prison system, my prison continues to operate under some form of lockdown.

Everyone is aware of the economic toll taken by COVID-19 and the resulting reactions to the pandemic. America’s vast penal system is no exception.

The bloated American “Prison Industrial Complex” is an unmanageable $182 billion monstrosity, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative. In the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC), some of the economic impact from the pandemic mirrors what is occurring in other states. But there are peculiarities in the Washington system that raise eyebrows.

State budgets usually allocate standard operational fees for their prisons, as well as a theoretical expected cost per prisoner, which is about $33,274 per incarcerated person per year, according to a Vera 2015 survey of 45 states. In Washington, the alleged expense was much higher at $37,841, according to the same Vera data. The Washington DOC Budget Office’s figure for 2019 is even higher at $41,232 per incarcerated individual.

In Washington’s penal system, the bulk of the budget is allocated to staff salaries. The Vera study found that the state spent 54% of its prison budget on salaries and overtime compared to an average of 44%. Over the years, staffing numbers have risen dramatically. The state also has a powerful prison guard union, which affects all decisions.

Unlike most states, Washington also charges numerous fees to the prisoners themselves and their families, which most states would find excessive and unreasonable. Think of it as “taxation with incarceration.” (And this does not even include legal financial obligations or other specific court-ordered costs a judge might impose on individual cases.)

Washington prisoners pay mandatory deductions, as outlined in a chart on the DOC’s website. Incarcerated individuals pay a 5% to 20% cost of incarceration fee and a “crime victim’s compensation” fee of 5%, which are deducted from any money sent to prisoners from family or other sources. In addition, other potential fees include a 20% legal financial obligations fee and an additional 10% that goes to “savings.” Add to all this, $6 a year for cable even if you do not own a TV or are in an empty cell in segregation. All hygiene items must even be purchased by the prisoners.

Although this was waived during the pandemic, Washington prisoners also normally pay a $4 co-pay per visit for medical care and mental health care, as was recorded in the notes for a Local Family Council Meeting at Stafford Creek Corrections Center on March 3, 2021.

Unsurprisingly, most prisoners cannot afford to take such a gamble, knowing they still have to pay the fee even if no relief is provided. For example, someone suffering what turns out to be a cold will simply be told, “Get lots of rest and drink lots of water,” and get charged for the privilege of hearing that dismissive comment.

According to a 2017 report from Pew Charitable Trusts, several state prisons have a daily open medicine counter where instant remedies such as aspirin, bandages or medication for digestive relief for minor ailments can be issued at no cost. This is not the case in Washington.

Where I am, we must go through a process for sick calls, which can take up to 23 hours, too late to treat a headache, tooth pain or food poisoning. Even if a prisoner wakes up too sick to report for work or school, they are not allowed to sleep in without a mandatory sick call visit. As far as I can see, this system makes sure that the prisoner is paying the copay.

Prisoners may also purchase some basic over-the-counter medications like aspirin if they are ill, but they would need to be psychic because it takes over two weeks to receive them. By then, the illness has likely passed.

Other problems, such as poor vision, have been exploited through Correctional Industries (CI), which is contracted and paid to provide products and services at excessive cost. Since CI took it over, optometrist exams have been very difficult to get. I myself have been begging the medical unit for vision care for nearly a decade. Dental services are troubling as well. I’ve had an otherwise salvageable molar extracted simply because I couldn’t pay for a root canal.

Similarly, mental health services are all but nonexistent. Pills are issued in lieu of therapy. Emergency care is classified by extreme need only, namely the threat of suicide or violent psychosis. Both of these classifications result not in treatment, but a few days naked in a disciplinary segregation cell under watch. The result is that people don’t report mental illness for fear of punishment or a fee.

Why is it that the Washington system alone (apparently) charges all of these fees? Florida, for example, which has been reported for mistreating its prisoners, had an incarceration rate of 497 per 10,000 state residents compared to Washington’s rate of 233 in 2015 according to the Vera report, yet they can afford to give their prisoners free soap, toothpaste and other supplies.

All of these costs and practices became even more problematic in the era of COVID-19.

In March, when the pandemic first affected my facility, the prison was locked down as a preemptive quarantine measure. This is a status that is unchanged even now.

At first prisoners had to improvise their own masks using sleep masks, socks, torn t-shirts, yarmulkes, anything we could scrounge. The prison soon issued occasional masks of varying quality. Eventually, bars of soap were issued monthly to every prisoner. These were not the usual prison brands, so I assume they were donated to the prisons.

Most of the prison practices and services were impacted by the lockdown. Most non-emergency dental and medical appointments were canceled or indefinitely delayed. Some prisoners lost their jobs. Visits and education and clubs and religious services all ended. Yet, Correctional Industries remained open.

Accurate news about the pandemic has been scarce for impoverished prisoners. Washington prisoners are allowed a television, radio or music player, and newspaper subscriptions, but only if they purchase them themselves. The costs are astronomical — $245 for a 15-inch off-brand TV plus an additional $15 transfer fee, according to the 2021 Union Supply Direct Washington catalog. Used TVs can also be rented but at a high cost. 

The prison library continues to be closed down for the lockdown. Prisoners or their families can purchase approved books and magazines but only if they are brand-new from vendors. Used books or magazines, which would be infinitely more affordable, are not permitted to come into the prisons. There is not even a cart of disposable books in the units for the poor inmates to read.

To attempt to alleviate some of the confusion, boredom, and potential for chaos, a couple of us tried to convince DOC early on to issue loaner TVs, radios or music players to every indigent inmate at no cost. This never happened of course. Pleas for books and periodicals to be provided also were ignored.

The prison administrators instead asked their trusted inmate elite what incentives they could provide to those prisoners with a “clear conduct,” those who never get accused of any wrongdoing). The tone-deaf response from those trusted intermediary inmates was to offer bi-monthly food fundraisers, so that the wealthy prisoners could buy special treats for themselves, while the poor prisoners could smell them and watch.

Ever since the prison food services was taken over by CI, the meals have been inedible, inadequate, repetitive and repulsive. For years, the breakfast sack has consisted of a goat’s diet of oats, apples and peanut butter. The two hot meals are so bland that the prisoners must purchase their own seasoning, be it cheese, sugar, sauces and other condiments the prison commissary sells at high cost. Like most people, sedentary prisoners eat more when bored and under duress, which lead to more junk food sales.

Another insensitive “privilege” was to allow the prison’s JPay email and music service to offer movie rentals and video games, again at exaggerated costs. This of course doesn’t benefit those who cannot afford the gadget, a small poor-quality tablet-like player with minimal features and a price three times beyond its worth. Similarly, a TV channel that plays PG-rated DVDs was added, which again doesn’t help those without TVs.

Indigent inmates can incur debt to acquire basic hygiene items and envelopes etc., which they then might trade with wealthier inmates at half the value for small treats like 25-cent ramen noodles. Even the free soap was often traded away. Not all inmates have prison jobs, and many no longer have any living family to help support them. Prisoners are not permitted to support each other.

More economic problems are developing all the time. The state projects a budget shortfall of $8.8 billion through 2023, prompting the governor to furlough staff and cancel raises although the Teamsters 117 union for DOC prison staff was able to successfully negotiate the furloughs to be voluntary for union members. Many prisoners are also experiencing interference with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act payment process.

Even in prison, the 99 percent fall victim to the greed of the 1 percent.

(Additional reporting by Caitlin Wong and Molly Wright)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John Hovey is a writer and artist incarcerated in Washington. He has been involved in many various prison reform/abolition efforts over the decades, in particular trying to help juveniles avoid, survive and exit prison, as well as fighting many other criminal justice issues.