Prisoners Near Release Face a Choice: Not Getting Meds, or Not Going Home

    [Read Part 1 of this story here]

    When prisoners with release dates enter the final years of their sentence, Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) can “promote” them to the minimum custody levels as part of their re-entry preparations. When you have less than four years until you’re out the gate, that’s when you become eligible for camp.

    Camp facilities are what we call the lowest-security WDOC prisons (not counting re-entry centers, which house people on work release in the final months of their sentence). Camp is the only way to get a work detail out in the community, rather than on WDOC grounds, and those work details are your only real shot at saving enough money to avoid ending up back in prison.

    The most coveted assignments are on the work crews operated by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—like wildfire suppression crews, which sometimes hire the same people to do the same job after they’re released. The “wages” will be a few cents higher than for regular WDOC assignments, but the real difference is that you can get paid for every hour you work. The rest of us are currently capped at $55 per month no matter what. 

    Some camp facilities are just a section of one of the main WDOC prisons. But some are freestanding locations that only house prisoners who’ve been cleared for camp, and without being transferred to one of those it’s almost impossible to get an off-site assignment. Four camp facilities operate DNR work crews. Three of them don’t have medical departments.

    No one’s going to tell you whether your prescription will jeopardize your placement.

    If you have any medical, dental and/or mental health conditions, your patient file better show a miraculous recovery by the time it gets to headquarters for review. Otherwise, per WDOC policy your “needs exceed the resources available at a [camp] facility.” WDOC did not provide responses to Filter‘s questions about camp placements.

    When a prisoner is about to hit the four-year mark, their case manager walks them through the eligibility markers for camp. According to multiple prisoners who have been through this process more than once, they’re told that one of the markers is not being on any psychiatric medications. It’s common for people to discontinue those meds—even ones that aren’t tightly controlled, like Prozac—before their camp paperwork is submitted for review.

    Mental health is weighted heavily throughout the review process that determines whether someone gets camp and which facility they’re sent to if they do. Therapists are involved. If requested, a “Mental Health override [can] assign a more restrictive custody based on the individual’s needs for mental health services.”

    If you’re entering WDOC with a sentence that’s already less than four years, all this happens during your intake assessment. Your camp paperwork is sent off to headquarters before you’ve had a chance to weigh your options. You’re in a cell 20 hours each day. You don’t have a case manager. No one’s going to tell you whether your prescription will jeopardize your placement, unless you run into an old-timer on your way to medical. No one in medical will have time for questions; they’re just churning out assessments. Do you want it or not?

    Like many others whose psychiatric needs aren’t suddenly “cured,” Fred is usually sent to Larch Corrections Center.

    Many prisoners serving what we call “life on the installment plan” have gone to camp multiple times, as part of the cycle of leaving prison and returning shortly after. Fred*, currently incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center, has had the same prescriptions for antidepressants Celexa and Remeron each time he’s become camp-eligible. He always applies for transfer to the same facility: Olympic Corrections Center, one of the prisons with DNR crews. He told Filter that each time, his paperwork always comes back saying he’s been denied placement because of a medical hold.

    Fred still ends up going to camp, at one of the facilities with the DNR work crews. Like many others whose psychiatric needs aren’t suddenly “cured,” he’s usually sent to Larch Corrections Center (LCC)—the lone camp institution with a medical department.

    LCC doesn’t have a daily Pill Line for medications like Remeron. Instead, it just issues them as Keep On Person so prisoners can get the full month’s supply at a time, which is characterized as too high-risk to implement at other facilities.

    Re-entry preparation isn’t just about saving money before the post-release debt traps start piling on.

    These rules are always arbitrary. Officials could waive them if they wanted to. The barriers dispensing mood stabilizers or hormone treatments somehow don’t prevent camp facilities from dispensing insulin up to three times a day. Diabetic Line is simply thought of as more essential than Pill Line. LCC just doesn’t do Pill Line—too much of a hassle, with prisoners leaving the grounds for work so early in the morning. Like if a methadone clinic gave everyone take-homes because it was simpler than daily dispensing.

    This doesn’t mean everyone wants to be sent to LCC. The fear of being reincarcerated due to poverty isn’t the biggest reason people take themselves off their medication. It’s about how they get to spend the final years of their sentence. Fred always applies to Olympic Corrections Center because he’s from the Olympic peninsula; he wants to be near his family. LCC is over 200 miles away.

    One of the most frustrating inequities of the re-entry placement system is that, at least on paper, WDOC also wants Fred and others in his position to be near their families. Successful re-entry comes from having enough money and reintegrating into your community. Not just a community—yours.


    *Name has been changes at source’s request

    Photograph of prisoner fire crew via Colorado Correctional Industries

    • 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 writing has been published by the AppealTruthoutJewish Currents and the Seattle Journal of Social Justice. His Washington State Department of Corrections ID is #716850, and until WDOC corrects a 29-year-old paperwork error his name in Securus is “Jonathon.”

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