“Fifty Years Just Ain’t Enough”: Dying in Prison, and Still Denied Release

February 14, 2024

Donald Snook, 70, has 38 plants in his cell in Washington Corrections Center (WCC). It looks like a jungle. There’s an aloe vera on the desk and a six-and-a-half-foot ficus tree by the door. Plastic pots of various sizes cover the floor and the upper bunk; he has no cellie, only plants. The shelves are lined with cacti. Nobody says nothing about it.

The day room on our tier has five metal tables, but one of them is Snook’s. It has a cushioned chair between two of the metal stools that stays there even though it’s not welded on, and every day Snook comes and sits in it and puts plants on the all the others so nobody can join him. Sometimes a new prisoner who doesn’t know who he is will try to sit down, and Snook will grumble menacingly at them until they leave.

At least once every shift, a new cop who doesn’t know who Snook is will yell down the hall that he can’t use the ice machine right now, or he can’t use that kiosk right now, or he’s supposed to stay in his cell until count clears. Snook will shout back, Fuck off! Fuck you! I’ve been in prison twice as long as you’ve been alive! Eventually one of the slightly less new cops will inform them that that’s Snook; just let him be.

Snook has been continuously incarcerated in Washington State since 1974, way longer than any of the rest of us at WCC. Some people don’t like him, but everybody respects him. Only a few others in Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) custody have survived that much time.

Fifty years ago, Snook came to prison on an 18-month sentence. Not long after that he was sentenced to life for killing a prisoner; then sentenced to death for killing another prisoner; then taken off death row after the appeal that set the precedent in Washington State that mandatory death penalties were unconstitutional; and left with two life sentences to serve while everyone else mostly stays out of his way.

Now, he’s dying.

“I’ll be dead before I can file for clemency again.”

At the beginning of 2019, when he and I were both at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Snook found blood coming out of his ass. He was transported to a local hospital and later told it was hemorrhoids, and that he shouldn’t strain. By the time he was diagnosed with colon cancer that September, it was Stage III.

In 2021, WDOC was the subject of an Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) investigative report on delays in cancer treatment and diagnosis. The report gave WDOC a series of recommendations, including shoring up any “system deficiencies and gaps in resources that are preventing the diagnosis of cancer in its earliest possible stage.”

In response to Filter‘s inquiries, Media Relations Manager Tobby Hatley did not directly specify whether WDOC had identified any such deficiencies or gaps. He pointed to 2020 efforts to get the funding needed to transfer prisoner medical records to a secure electronic database like the ones used by large hospital systems. The department is currently “reliant on a paper medical record.”

Snook wants people to know that Patient H in the OCO report is him. He always knew he would die in prison, but until recently he still had hope.

“DOC made that happen,” Snook told Filter in early February, “because they delayed my treatment.”

“Fifty years just ain’t enough.”

In addition to commutations and pardons, the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board recommends which prisoners the governor should release “for reasons of serious health problems, senility, advanced age, extraordinary meritorious acts or other extraordinary circumstances.”

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts in previous years, in 2022 Snook got a pro-bono lawyer interested in helping him petition for extraordinary release. Filter reviewed his application, filed August 1, 2023. It asked for accelerated review in light of terminal illness, and included the waiver to have his medical records reviewed, since medical information is supposed to be confidential

On January 31, 2024, Snook’s lawyer informed him the Board had denied him a hearing. When that happens, you have to wait two years before you can try again. 

“Fifty years just ain’t enough,” Snook said. “It’s quite ironic, this allegedly liberal Board essentially sentenced me to death again … I’ll be dead before I can file for clemency again in two years.” The Board did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment about whether terminal illness is factored into deliberations.

Snook uses a walker. His meals are brought to him in his cell because the walk to the chow hall is too far.

Clemency and Pardon Board hearings are televised, and at the end the five Board members cast their votes then and there. But most people don’t make it as far as a hearing. The majority—including Snook, myself and more than a dozen others I’ve known over the years—are denied in preliminary review, and the Board members who deny them never have to give their reason. Snook won’t even know if they looked at his medical records.

Clemency, the broad term for any form of mercy made by executive order, is discretionary. The Board members aren’t beholden to any particular standards or criteria, but vote based on their personal views.

Snook’s cancer has spread from his colon to his liver and his lungs and his lymph nodes. He has 80-percent blockage on the left side of his heart, and can’t get a stent. After his first cigarette in juvie somewhere around 1967 he smoked every single day until they took our cigarettes in the early 2000s, and now has end-stage COPD. He uses a walker. His meals are brought to him in his cell because the walk to the chow hall and back is too far. His doctor, his counselor and the prison chaplain are all trying to bribe him with TV privileges to get him to move into the medical unit for end-of-life care. He has a family. If his continued incarceration is meant to serve a purpose, he doesn’t understand what it is.



Read Part 2 of this story here

Photograph of Don Snook on death row at Washington State Penitentiary 1978-1979 via Washington Prison History Project and University of Washington Bothell Digital Collections/Creative Commons 4.0

Jonathan Kirkpatrick

Jonathan covers harm reduction and re-entry. He's incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, where he's a Teacher's Assistant for re-entry workshops and trains peer educators in HIV and hepatitis C harm reduction. His Washington State Department of Corrections job is crafting quilts out of recycled materials to donate to nonprofits for fundraising. His writing has been published by the Appeal, Truthout, Jewish Currents and the Seattle Journal for Social Justice. His ID number in WDOC is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 28-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is "Jonathon."

Disqus Comments Loading...