There’s a common misperception that prisons in Washington are “progressive,” and that being on the “Left Coast” somehow ensures an absence of conservatism in its institutions and communities. It’s not true, but it gets repeated anyway.
Take Janelle Guthrie’s recent publication in DOC Communications, “Corrections Looks to Norway for Inspiration on Reform,” where Guthrie boasted that “The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) is one of the most progressive corrections departments in the nation.” As an example, Guthrie offers an October 2019 study trip Washington DOC administrators took to Norway to examine the country’s famously progressive prison model, which employs policies based on the rehabilitation and humanization of those it incarcerates. She points to the DOC’s adoption of a new mission statement, ostensibly based on what the administrators observed during the visit.
That new mission statement includes a commitment “to improve public safety by positively changing lives,” yet Guthrie’s article fails to mention that no actual policies or practices have changed in Washington prisons as a result of the trip or new mission statement. I’ve yet to witness any “progressive” policies during my time at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) in Washington state, but I’ve seen plenty of the opposite among the guards and administrators here. People incarcerated in Washington state are still locked in cages like animals. We’re still fed cheap and tasteless food that seldom conforms to FDA recommendations for a healthy diet. Phone and email services offered to us are still restrictive and overpriced, and prisoners engaging in any type of organized protest against the DOC are still stripped of “good time” that would have otherwise enabled earlier release.
As the pandemic took hold in 2020, guards were still wearing masks emblazoned with pictures of Donald Trump’s face and bold-lettered MAGAs—and were apparently not reprimanded for doing so. But days after the killing of George Floyd, an officer showed up to work with three words stitched on her face-covering: Black Lives Matter. Within hours, she was reported by at least one of her co-employees, called to the lieutenant’s office, and instructed to remove the mask. She refused, and was threatened with the prospect of being sent home for the day. She continued to refuse and eventually, with no policy or law on which to lean, her boss yielded, and her shift continued.
Shortly after the guard with the Black Lives Matter mask stood her ground, I contributed an essay for an anthology titled, We Are Antifa. When the publisher attempted to send me a copy of the finished book, I received a notice from MCC’s mailroom that informed me the book had been denied access into the prison for containing “information that is related to the security threat group, Antifa.”
During a House Committee meeting on Homeland Security in September 2020, FBI Director Chris Wray testified that “Antifa is not an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.” In Trump’s campaign against Black Lives Matter, however, he deemed the antifascist, antiracist way of thinking as a terrorist organization. With a single statement, Wray turned the various ways individual Americans might define “Antifa” into political stances. The reason provided for my book’s rejection made it clear that the Washington DOC took the stance of the man whose face was stitched into the masks of many of their employees, rather than that of the FBI.
As I sat in the Chow Hall one night listening as one guard told another the story of his co-worker who’d worn the Black Lives Matter mask (unaware that I could hear him), I wondered on what grounds Washington prisons are so often referred to as “progressive.”
The labels and terms we use when talking about societal issues matter, because when they’re not clearly defined or are casually misused, people end up coming to conversations with different ideas about what those terms mean. The result is often unproductive. The DOC in Washington almost exclusively hires individuals with conservative values. Further, its policies also reflect conservative values. Yet it frustratingly continues to be regarded as a progressive organization, a perception that seems primarily based on the state’s progressive reputation, not the reality of how its policies and personnel actually operate.
In 2021, a guy who had been transferred from an out-of-state facility put it into perspective for me. We were walking laps around the recreation yard, discussing an upcoming project for a college course we were both taking. Almost at random, he said, “Man, I can’t believe what you guys get away with over here. Back home you couldn’t even look sideways at a guard without getting dragged into a room with no cameras and beaten within an inch of your life.”
Perspective, I concluded, was the culprit. Sure, Washington prisons aren’t as conservatively run as those in far-right, Southern states, but one prison being more tolerable doesn’t make it desirable. The fact that Texas and Mississippi’s DOCs operate with more punitive models than those used in Washington doesn’t make the Washington DOC forward thinking.
It’s time we accurately describe the Washington DOC according to the policies it implements and the culture it fosters among guards and administrative staff, none of which are progressive. Feeding the fantasy that facilities run by people who approve books and masks on the basis of “What would Trump do?” are somehow progressive just because they’re in a reputedly “progressive state,” undermines the critical need to evaluate how the DOC really operates and how it treats the incarcerated people in its care. Considering 68% of people who get out of prison end up returning, I can’t imagine how we can afford not to nurture honest communication about the effectiveness or lack thereof in the Washington DOC’s practices and whether or not they deserve the label of “progressive.”