Prison’s Isolation

Today, I will be discussing, in summary, the overall patterns of maltreatment and denial of relationships of all kinds by the Washington state Department of Corrections (WA DOC) and supporting my assertions with anecdotal accounts. Some of these are from my own personal experience; others are drawn from the experience of others whose identities will remain anonymous for confidentiality reasons.

Furthermore, please note that all the anecdotal evidence in this essay occurred within a three month period. While there are exceptions to the overall negative treatment of relationships by the WA DOC, they are very few, highly limited, and usually dependent on the actions of a single WA DOC employee.

We, as a society, should care about incarcerated people being able to create and maintain healthy family, friend, romantic, and professional relationships both within the prison and beyond prison walls because relationships are of paramount importance to the human experience and necessary for habilitation, let alone rehabilitation. To look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we see that in prison the first two are technically satisfied (Food/Water and Shelter), the third is simultaneously met and threatened (Safety), and the fifth is available through various religious programs (Enlightenment). However, the fourth need (Relationship) is specifically attacked, limited, and dismissed by the WA DOC.

The first way the WA DOC undermines the ability for people in prison to have relationships is the destruction of lines of communication. I, like many prisoners, fear having only one way to contact anyone I know. Though, even when there are multiple ways for me to contact friends and loved ones, all of those routes can be cut off with no warning, no explanation, and little to no appeal process. I have had two people I used to message on a weekly basis blocked from JPay (an email-like message service for prisons). One of my friends who has been blocked is in New Zealand and they are particularly dear to my heart. But due to it taking three weeks for a letter to get from me to them, and three weeks back for their reply, we’ve been slowly losing touch. The other friend is local to the Seattle area and when blocked it took us weeks to connect on the phone. When we did finally get the chance to talk, I learned he had sent me a snail mail weeks before that I neither received, nor was given a rejection for.

This type of interruption of the ability to communicate is common and happens regularly with no reason or explanation given. There have been times when all our routes of communication (phone, email, and JPay) have been blocked simultaneously. This is why I make a point of trying to have everyone I am in regular contact with to have each other’s contact info. Doing so skirts on the edge of the WA DOC’s “no third party communication” policy. As in, if I have a penpal who sends me a letter with the following sentence: “My Nana says hi!”, that is a violation of policy and the entire message can me summarily rejected. Furthermore, while there (technically) is an appeal process, initial rejections are rarely overturned, and when they are, mailroom staff have the option to appeal the overturn. This entire process has absolutely zero transparency and no manual of how the various rejection and appeal mechanisms work. We are not told who to contact regarding appeals. We are only told to contact the “Superintendent Designee”, but not who that designee is. Nor are we told who to contact in Olympia (WA DOC HQ) about mail rejections.

This Kafkaesque process is only the beginning of the WA DOC’s anti-relationship policies and actions.

Prisoners are strictly forbidden from writing each other. For someone like me who has trouble finding and building a support network of friends or even acquaintances, this means every time I change facilities I completely lose all my social and emotional support in prison. Every time I walk onto a new mainline I do so blindly with no idea who’s there that may be a potential ally, or predator. And I can’t even share the feelings of isolation which arise from that with the people I have come to cherish, care for, and lean on, because they are all at a different facility and we aren’t able to write each other.

There are many other policies which limit and/or outright destroy the ability for friends and loved ones to support people in prison and for people in prison to support each other.

One person I know has had an ongoing issue with the mailroom rejecting/blocking letters between himself and his wife. They’ve been married a decade. This is because their letters keep getting flagged as sexually explicit when in fact they are simply the sensual endearments of two married people with a healthy relationship. He has had to fight for and defend his marriage from overt attack by mailroom staff imposing their prudish world view.

This is because people who have relationships across prison walls have to not just navigate each other’s hangups, thoughts, feelings, and needs, but the beliefs of the invisible stranger judging every single thing said, written, or drawn. An invisible stranger with the power to stop all conversation on a whim. They quite literally have the power to create a failure to communicate.

It is these sorts of policies which make having a relationship difficult, or in some cases, impossible. I am not even going to attempt to rank these in any way shape or form because what creates an insurmountable barrier for one couple or group of friends, may be completely irrelevant to someone else.

As incarcerated people, we do not have the ability to place funds on our own phone account. This means in order to speak with someone on the phone the outside person has to place money on our phone account or we can’t talk. The ability to make collect calls has slowly been rolled back and eliminated. One solution is to send money from the general spendable account to someone outside prison and have them put money on the phone account. However, if an incarcerated person doesn’t have someone on the outside they can trust with their money, then this is not an option. It is a common occurrence to have person B use person A’s phone pin to speak to a loved one who has a drug or gambling problem in an attempt to talk them out of their vice and into treatment, or generally to call home when some crisis has come up or person B simply hasn’t been able to check in for a few months and doesn’t want their people to worry. Sometimes coffee is used as currency to pay for the call, but far more often one person is just doing a favor to another for a good cause. This is a violation of about three or four rules, but they can get away with it. What they can’t get away with is for person B to send money to someone person A trusts and that someone put that money on person B’s phone account. Accounting nearly always catches and steals the money outright, claiming it is legal for them to do so, by policy of course.

Related to this issue is the rule that anyone outside prison can only send money to one person incarcerated in the WA DOC. Meaning if two brothers come to prison, their aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents would have to choose which one of the two to support. A person can get a special exception for direct family limited to parents and siblings, but everyone else has to choose one or the other to support.

The barriers in place are not limited to communication and who us allowed to support whom, but extends to only allowing anyone outside prison to visit one one person incarcerated in the WA DOC and the visiting room itself is a mine field of hazards to be navigated.

One person I go to school with received infractions for holding hands “wrong” in the visiting room. Neither of us could puzzle out what that even means. Did they waffle when they were supposed to pancake? How can there be a wrong way to hold hands? Many other people I know have received verbal reprimands for sitting too close, saying “hello” to people at an adjacent table, hugging too long at the beginning or end of a visit, having small children that are too rambunctious or any number of things which are simply a part of the human experience of love, friends, and family.

The WA DOC criminalizes incarcerated people being respected by staff. They dismiss the ties of relationship which connect us in a web of community. They are so enamored of the idea that Incarcerated people are on one side of the fence, and DOC employees are on the other that they cannot understand the following truth: any time two people are on opposite sides of a fence they are neighbors.

The next account is different than the rest I am presenting in that it is an exceptional situation rather than a common one.

We had a correctional officer (c/o) who worked here . His post was weekends in the chapel. He would shake an incarcerated person’s hand during the last week of their sentence before they released. In response to him shaking any incarcerated person’s hand for any reason internal investigations (INI) repeatedly put him under investigation for “being compromised.” His only crime being treating incarcerated people like human beings who happened to have made some mistakes. This is as opposed to how a lot of c/o’s treat us: like children, or worse like garbage or cattle. While there are many c/o’s who deal with us in a professional manner, it is rare for a c/o to treat us in a truly humane fashion, and rarer still for one to treat us with dignity and respect. He quit the WA DOC because he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his integrity for a pay check. The reality of the situation rather is that we need a couple thousand c/o’s just like him.

The WA DOC actively attacks incarcerated people for having relationships with each other, whether friendship or something more.

Thee are rules test make it a punishable offense to give another person anything. This means that if someone I know has a headache and I give them a bottle of aspirin, we can both be infracted. Same goes for sharing anything else. We are not allowed to put in on a spread (collective meal made from food off the prison store) or eat it together if we get away with putting a spread together. In order to engage in pro-social behaviors, we are forced to break the rules.

We are only allowed to eat together at mealtimes where we are supposed to have 20 minutes to eat. However, it is rare for us to have our full time and regularly only have 10-15 minutes to eat. Mealtimes are an important part of human socialization. By severely limiting the time and place we can eat they interrupt a fundamental community building activity. Breaking bread. By limiting our ability to share food and making mealtimes into the mere intake of caloric sustenance the WA DOC supports an atmosphere of fear and distrust.

Many c/o’s are quick to accuse incarcerated people of being “too affectionate” regardless of context, especially LGBTQ people.

I have been yarded in (sent to my cell for one to three hours) and threatened with infractions for sitting too close to someone I was speaking to, giving someone a hug, and holding someone’s hand while they recounted painful personal life experiences. Other people I know have been fired from their job assignment for hugging their friends in the morning when they show up or work or have had PREA investigations initiated or c/o’s making calls to INI.

The act of showing compassion, of being emotionally supportive of my fellow incarcerated people, of holding emotional space for another human being, is not tolerated.

The WA DOC claims these activities are disallowed by PREA. The problem with this is that it is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, not the Prison Kindness Elimination Act. And while we’re on the subject, it’s not the Prison Rape Elimination Act either.

I know of a couple in prison who have been in a healthy longterm stable romantic relationship and celebrated recently four years of living together about a month before one of them was promoted to long term minimum. This put them into a forced separation. The last time when this has happened one of them would get in just enough trouble to not be promoted. This time they’ve decided to stick it out because one of them has a year and a half left and the other two years until they get out of prison. They are now no longer able to be alone together, no longer able to be physically intimate, not even able to simply hold hands. Watching the pain and suffering they go through because of this makes my heart hurt. I can’t think of a worse punishment for good behavior than to be able to see your love each day, but not be able to touch them for fear of having their love taken away.

This is the kind of harm the WA DOC inflicts on people in prison who dare to let themselves be human and fall in love.

This draconian imposition extends to every facet of life in prison, including classes and programs. At one program I am a part of the sponsors informed us that they received a written warning for our group “laughing too loudly” (yes, joy happens in prison), “high-fiving” (as does spontaneous celebration), and “standing in a circle while holding hands” (we were doing a grounding exercise at the end of class). While most people may think a written warning means nothing. To us, it means that if we get a second warning within 90 days our sponsors lose their approval to come into the facility and our group will be canceled, most likely permanently.

In prison, the simplest acts of affection, compassion, and joy are seen as a direct threat to the misery a large portion of WA DOC employees believe we should experience. While not the majority of prison staff and c/o’s, they are numerous enough to contribute to an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. This trend is supported by c/o’s having a reasonable expectation based on experience of being backed up by their superiors and administration anytime they act in an overtly fascist manner. And if you think the word “fascist” is a tad bit strong… they are against hugs, holding hands, high-fives, and laughter. If that’s not fascism, I don’t know what is.

In conclusion, the WA DOC is opposed to healthy trust and reciprocal relationships between incarcerated people and anyone else both in and out of prison. They disallow lending a hand when someone is having difficulties, criminalize affection, frown upon mutual respect, and cannot tolerate compassion or caring. All of which is at the heart of friendship, and friendship is the foundation for all healthy relationships, romantic, professional, and otherwise. It is through the web of our relationships that we create community. The lines of that web connect people inside and outside prison in complex beautiful ways. The WA DOC has policies in place for the purposeful destruction of people’s ability to communicate and connect with each other which in turn destroys relationship ties and shreds that web of community.

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