My Experience in Washington State Prisons

Recently, I’ve had a couple of nightmares of being in prison.  I thought I’d have these when I got out a year and almost five months ago but I didn’t until the last few days.  There are some things about the experience I want to relate.

Most of the guards belong to the Teamsters union and the Teamsters are pushing for more guards for safety reasons.  The murder of officer Biendl was a tragedy and it’s something that shouldn’t have happened.  It was able to happen in part because officer Biendl was alone.  More guards would allow activities without leaving officers alone and placing them in that kind of danger.  The safety is important to everyone and the activities adequate staff make possible are important to the prisoners and society in general because it impacts how they will function in society upon release.

There are many other issues that fuel anger and create hazards in the prison system.  Just adding officers isn’t going to make society any safer when prisoners are eventually released but addressing some of the other issues would.

I went first into Shelton.  That is what they refer to as an intake facility where they haven’t got people sorted out at all yet.  People who are non-violent are put in cells with people who are gang members.  So much goes on in the court system and there is time that you spend in the county jail before hand.  This time should be used to perform some classification before someone even gets to prison so that those groups can be segregated from each other.

My next stop was Airway Heights, a prison just outside of Spokane Washington.  One of the things that readily became apparent is that many of the people who are in prison are there because they have severe mental illnesses that render them incapable of functioning in society.  At Airway Heights people with bipolar disease, that is manic-depressives, were extremely common, people with schizophrenia or other forms of mental illness that left them prone to hallucinations and paranoia, also not uncommon.  People with generalized anxiety disorders, like I had when I went in, also not uncommon.  People with serious anger management issues, NOT uncommon.  Most of these people either weren’t be treated or they received very minimal treatments.  Psychiatric drugs were problematic in prison because of their potential for being abused and psychotherapy pretty much non-existent.

There were also people with serious physical health problems that weren’t getting treated.  One man with a pacemaker with a dead battery fainted almost daily.  They’d take him away and he’d come back later the next day until the next time he passed out.

I was fortunate in so many ways.  I snore like a bear.  When I came to Shelton I hadn’t slept in three days.  Every time I went to sleep my cell mate would wake me because of my snoring.  I ended up in what they refer to as the IMU (the acronym means Intensive Management Unit, prisoners refer to it as “The Hole”, the media refers to it as solitary confinement).

While in the IMU I had an experience that resolved my anxiety issues.  If you don’t believe in God, or do believe in God but aren’t acting according to your beliefs, your heart knows what your head doesn’t, and that will cause you anxiety like nothing else.  God made that clear to me in my stay there and I resolved to do my best to act according to what I know in my heart and that has been a blessing, I learned there what forgiveness is, now I’m trying to learn to apply it myself towards other people and that’s been a bit more difficult.  But the 2-1/2 year trip would have been worth it for that alone.  I had suffered from often severe anxiety issues for three decades prior.

I was also fortunate in that I had family to write to me, talk to me, and when I got back to Monroe, visit me.  So many people there have no family, few if any friends.  Both Airway Heights and Monroe had volunteers that came in and performed religious services and helped prisoners with one-on-one counseling and other services.  The prisons often made it very difficult for these people to function but the importance of their presence there can’t be understated.

It is true that a lot of prisoners will “get religion” and within about a week of being out will lose it.  But some of them will get God and have their lives altered in a way that not only benefits them but also benefits the community when they get out.

In prison, some of the tiniest things are the source of the greatest anger, and addressing those things would be a lot less expensive and more effective than adding a boatload of guards, things like razors that cut skin but not facial hair, toothbrushes that are garbage, pens that won’t write, people like me who snore badly, being celled with people who don’t.

One problem at Airway Heights is cold.  In the winter it gets very cold, the cinder block walls do not provide much protection.  They give you two cotton blankets that have an extremely loose weave and let much air through.  I spent many nights there balled up shivering all night long.

I owe a great deal of debt to Steve McColm, a therapist that is now retired.  His retirement is a loss to the program, but he deserves to be able to spend some time with his wife.  He had stayed up there 100 miles from home during the week to work with us.  He introduced the concept of mindfulness, which really comes down to being aware and in the moment.  I’ve found it very helpful in managing my emotional state.

There was a group of Buddhist volunteers that came in and they offered a mindfulness course and I found that helpful.  I don’t know the name of the group, but I also want to thank them.  Which brings me to another point.  So many people who are religious put down other religions, but I’ve seen God use people of different religions in so many beneficial ways.  The Buddhists were one example, but also, the day before I was to go down and plead and turn myself in, a Jahovas Witness came to our house and witnessed to me, and really hit on some things that were important, and they visited me every week while I was in King County and there is no doubt in my mind that God used them.

One of the women that came in with one group up there, I talked to her about this and she said, “God is so big that no man can wrap his mind around him”, and I think that is so true.  I do believe in one God, but I think God is God, not a particular label we want to put on him and is so much bigger than any of our religions can get a handle on.  All you have to do is look at this vastness of a universe and realize that is just his creation, and even that part of his creation is only a very tiny portion that is visible to us, there is much more that we can’t even see.

So what is the point of all this rambling?  Well there are a few points actually.  1) Listen to your heart, and if it’s telling you you’re not doing the right thing, change.  2) Addressing mental health to help those who can’t function in society become able to function would be more cost effective than putting them in prison as well as more compassionate, and is just the right thing to do.  3) These churches and other groups that volunteer their time to help prisoners have a huge impact and they deserve your support and participation.

I’d like to urge people to write their congressman and representatives and urge them to provide funding for treatment of mentally ill rather than imprisoning them.  Also, write them to encourage the prison system to allow these volunteer religious groups to function as they are very helpful.  Educational programs are also helpful, another reason people end up in prison is that they don’t know how to make an honest living and for those people teaching them a trade is valuable.  The SOTP program is valuable, has been proven to reduce recidivism to less than half of what it would be otherwise, and is worth funding, and just little things like having enough blankets to be warm in the winter is valuable.  Most of these people are going to be released back into society, they are already damaged goods, they need repair and healing not more damage.

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