Over a year into the Covid19 pandemic and America’s quarantine shut-downs, most state prisons continue to operate under some form of lockdown, including the WA facility I am caged in.
Tragically, there have been thousands of deaths in the country, and many more who fell ill but survived the virus. The pandemic has also impacted lots of people in multitudes of other destructive ways. For example, everyone is aware of the economic toll taken by the corona virus and the resultant reactions to the pandemic. America’s vast penal system is no exception.
The bloated American “Prison Industrial Complex” is an unmanageable eighty-billion-dollar-a-year monstrosity. Like most businesses, the highly profitable penal system has been economically impacted by the pandemic as well. In the WA D.O.C., some of it mirrors what is occurring in other states. But there are peculiarities in the WA system that raise questioning eyebrows.
State budgets usually allocate standard operational fees for their prisons, as well as a theoretical expected cost per prisoner, typically about 33,000 dollars annually, but evidently, the alleged expense is much higher in WA. As in WA, in state penal systems the bulk of the funds go to staff salaries. Over the years, staffing numbers have risen dramatically. WA also has a powerful prison guard union which affects all decisions. There are additional avenues for extra money to pour into the prison systems, such as federal funds for specific compliances or programs.
But unlike most states, WA also charges numerous fees to the prisoners themselves and their families, which most states’ officials would find excessive and unreasonable. Think of it as “taxation with incarceration.” (And this is not even including “legal financial obligations” or other specific court-ordered costs a judge might impose on individual cases.)
WA prisoners pay a “cost of incarceration” fee which is deducted from any money given to prisoners from family or other sources, 20% at the bare minimum, often much, much more. Then there is a mandatory “crime victim compensation” fee of 5%. Add a six dollar a year “television cable” fee, even if you do not own a TV, or are in an empty cell in segregation. In WA, even all hygiene items (and postage) must be purchased by the prisoners.
Prisoners pay a four dollar “copay” per visit for medical care and mental health care. Not surprisingly, most prisoners cannot afford the risk of such a gamble, knowing they still pay the fee even if no relief is provided. For example, someone suffering what turns out to be a cold will simply be told to “get lots of rest and drink lots of water,” and get charged for the privilege of hearing that dismissive comment.
Most states will have a daily open-medicine-counter, where instant remedy for minor ailments can be issued at no cost. Items such as a dose of aspirin for pain, a bandage for a small cut, or digestive relief. Not so in WA. The “sick call” next-morning process must be used, which would be up to 23 hours too late to treat a headache or tooth pain or food poisoning. Even if a prisoner awakens far too ill to report for work or school, they are not allowed to sleep in without a mandatory sick call visit. But it assures the copay fee. Therefore, in both instances, any illness, suffering itself, has been monetized.
Prisoners may also purchase some basic over-the-counter medications like aspirin if they are ill, but they also need to be psychic, because it will take over two weeks to receive them. By then, the illness has passed.
Other problems, such as poor vision, have been exploited through “Corrections Industries,” the penal side business monopoly that is contracted and paid to provide products and services, in this case, eyeglasses, at exaggerated cost. Since C.I. took it over, optometrist exams are very difficult to get. I myself have been futilely begging medical for adequate vision 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 and pointless, pills issued in lieu of therapy, with emergency care classified by extreme need only, namely, the threat of suicide or violent psychosis, either of which results not in treatment, but a few days naked in a disciplinary segregation cell under watch. The result is that the reporting of mental illness is curtailed through the threat of punishment or fee.
Why then does the WA system alone (apparently) charge all of these insane fees, in addition to the higher per-inmate expense, when even more overcrowded and far more draconian systems do not? FL, for example, which atrociously mistreats its prisoners, cages over four times the number of prisoners as WA, yet they can afford to give their prisoners free soap and toothpaste et al and not charge all the unnecessary greedy fees.
All of these costs and practices became even more problematic in the era of corona.
In March, when the pandemic first affected the facility I am in, the prison was locked down under the claim of preemptive quarantine, a status it remains in over eight months later. At first prisoners had to improvise their own masks (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. As these were not the usual prison brands, one can assume they were donated to the prisons.
Most of the prison practices and services were impacted by the lockdown. Most nonemergency dental and medical appointments have been canceled or indefinitely delayed. Some prisoners lost their jobs. Visits and education and clubs and religious services all ended. Yet, Corrections Industries remained open, unsurprisingly, which stays profitable using sweatshops of inmate labor (at over double the 42 cent an hour pay of conventional prison jobs).
Accurate news about the pandemic has been scarce for impoverished prisoners. WA prisoners are allowed a television, radio or music player, and newspaper subscriptions, but only if they purchase them themselves. The costs are astronomical, over $225 for a fifteen-inch off-brand TV. Used TVs can be rented at a high rate. But during the pandemic, those without a TV/radio/newspaper could get no news or information, let alone any entertainment to offset the maddening boredom of being trapped in a windowless cell most of the day, in a windowless housing unit, enduring the endless noise of four tiers of cages with open bars instead of solid doors.
The prison library was closed down for the lockdown. Prisoners or their families can purchase allowed books and magazines, but only brand-new from vendors. Used books or magazines, which would be infinitely more affordable, are not allowed 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, early on a couple of us tried to convince D.O.C. to issue loaner TVs and 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 went nowhere.
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 bimonthly food fundraisers, so that the wealthy prisoners could buy special treats for themselves, (which the poor prisoners would have the privilege of watching and smelling).
It should be noted that ever since the prison food services was appropriated by C.I., the meals became inedible, inadequate, repetitive and repulsive, all in the name of profit. For years the “breakfast” sack has been a goat’s diet of oats, apples and peanut butter. The two hot meals are also made bland so that the prisoners must purchase their own seasoning, cheese, sugar, sauces and other condiments the prison Commissary sells at high rates. And like most people, sedentary prisoners eat more when bored and under duress, which sells more junk food.
Another insensitive “privilege” was to have the prison’s email/music service (Jpay) offer movie rentals and video games, again at exaggerated cost. Which of course doesn’t benefit those who couldn’t afford the gadget in the first place, a small poor-quality tablet-like player with minimal features and a price three times beyond its comparable worth. Similarly, a TV channel that plays PG-rated DVDs was added, which again doesn’t help those without TVs.
Poor inmates, termed “indigent,” can incur debt to acquire basic hygiene items and envelopes etc, which they then are forced to trade to the wealthier inmates at half-worth for small food items like twenty-five cent ramen-noodles if they want to enjoy a treat. 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 allowed to support each other.
More economic problems within the prisons are developing all the time. Staff layoffs and pay cuts, and the inability to work anywhere/anytime for lucrative overtime pay, are creating rising tensions and systemic retaliation. Many prisoners are also experiencing interference with the CARES Act stimulus payment process.
The very high cost of mass incarceration is affecting millions, none more so than the prisoners themselves, including myriad insurmountable financial troubles inflicted upon them. Even in prison, the 99% fall victim to the greed of the 1%.
John Hovey #878017
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
John Hovey is an artist/author who was incarcerated at the age of sixteen way back in 1984. He is still serving three consecutive life sentences, and has been transferred around endlessly, incarcerated in ten different states in dozens of facilities. 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. He can be reached directly online via jpay.com, or by mail at: John Hovey, #878017, WSRU, P.O. Box 777, Monroe, WA 98272-0777, USA))