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PLN editor quoted in article re racial bias suit, racism at Washington prisons

Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 1, 1998.
PLN editor quoted in article re racial bias suit, racism at Washington prisons - Post-Intelligencer 1998




Monday, July 13, 1998

Opened 12 years ago in a depressed timber community, the Clallam Bay Correctional Center is one of the state's newer prisons.

In that time, the prison has had its share of troubles: inmate riots; the recent firing of its superintendent; and the debacle of a telemarketing job program, in which a convicted rapist got the address of a Redmond woman and sent her a suggestive Christmas card.

Now, prison officials face allegations of racial discrimination. Last week, five black current and former corrections officers filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections, alleging they were subjected to racial slurs, were denied promotions and unfairly reprimanded. Of about 200 corrections officers, five are black.

The complaint also is raising concerns about how minority inmates are treated at the Olympic Peninsula prison, a close- and medium-custody institution. (Close-custody is one level below maximum-custody.) The black officers say that some white officers boast Ku Klux Klan connections, single out black inmates for beatings and treat them unfairly.

For some inmates and their advocates, the complaints of racial discrimination are nothing new.

"(Clallam Bay) has got a reputation of being a crappy place. But if you're black, Hispanic or Asian, it's a real crappy place," said Paul Wright, a white inmate and co-editor of the Prison Legal News, a monthly national publication.

Wright, serving time for first-degree murder, spent two years at Clallam Bay and is now in Monroe. He said part of Clallam Bay's problem is its isolated location and lack of leadership. "It's in the middle of the boondocks," he said.

Leta Schattauer, an attorney contracted by the Department of Corrections to represent Clallam Bay inmates in non-monetary suits, says black inmates have long complained about racial discrimination at the prison.

"Minority prisoners are definitely discriminated (at Clallam Bay). There are no two ways about that," she said.

But Patricia Woolcock, spokeswoman for the prison, said black inmates, who make up about 25 percent of the nearly 900 inmates, are treated fairly. "Black inmates are not treated any differently than a white or Hispanic inmate," she said.

"I think the best way to say it is inmates are treated in a way that's constitutionally correct."

Phil Stanley, the department's regional administrator who oversees the Clallam Bay, said he questioned the black officers' allegations of discrimination or beatings of inmates.

"I don't know whether they're true. I don't believe they're true. We're concerned, but we don't have any specifics.... (The suit) had some broad descriptions of activities and comments, but we can't launch a full-scale investigation without some specifics."

In the past 10 years, the state has paid only six Clallam Bay inmates who have filed civil-rights claims with the state Office of Risk Management.

Seventeen civil rights claims filed by inmates statewide are pending, and one involves a Clallam Bay inmate. None of the claims appear to allege racial discrimination, said Betty Reed of the risk management office.

One of the claims, by a Native American inmate, said prison officials would not let him change his name from Floyd William Marr to his traditional name, William E-Che-Na-Ha Marr. Another inmate said he wasn't allowed to use his Muslim name.

The total payout to the inmates is about $14,425.

Inmates can also file a grievance with the department. Last year, out of 25,312 grievances filed against the department, 3,346 came from Clallam Bay inmates, according to prison records. Of those, seven alleged racial discrimination.

Schattauer said that although she hears about discrimination, the alleged victims don't often contact her.

Schattauer said a white prisoner once told her that Clallam Bay officers pit two inmates together and cheered the fighting. She also said a black inmate told her that in 1992, he saw swastikas cut out in the lawn. Schattauer could not confirm if those instances happened, and Woolcock denied them both.

Doris Washington, one of the plaintiffs in the suit filed last week, said she routinely heard white officers use racial epithets in referring to black inmates. She also said white officers call black inmates "crack heads, dope dealers, pimps and too illiterate to spell their own names."

Charles Jackson, another plaintiff, said he tried to start a black inmate group called "Incarcerated Brothers Association." He said the prison squelched the group because the name was "too black" and was concerned the group gave "too much power" to black inmates.

Woolcock confirmed that no black inmate group exists. She said the group was prohibited because it didn't meet certain guidelines. She declined to be specific.

David Fahti, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who works with many prisoners, said his office has received enough complaints to see a pattern regarding racial hostility at the prison.

"We get complaints on all kinds of issues, including medical care, housing, convictions," he said. "But the thing that's been somewhat constant there is African American prisoners complaining of racial discrimination."

In addition to the allegations, Clallam Bay has had other problems.
In 1995, inmates damaged 33 cells in a riot, breaking windows, jimmying locks and tying doors, prompting officers to fire stun grenades. Five months later, inmates staged a 10-minute uprising, set fires and tried to take two officers hostage.

In 1996, a dispute over food prompted inmates to barricade themselves with mattresses in their cellblocks. In January of this year, the Christmas card fiasco occurred, and the superintendent, Robert Wright, was fired.

Regional administrator Stanley characterized the prison disturbances as "inmate outbursts," involving just a few individuals damaging property for individual reasons. He said Wright was let go over "a variety of performance issues."

"At the current time, Clallam Bay is operating peacefully and efficiently," Stanley said.