WA Prisons Expanded Gradual Reentry. COVID Is an Excuse to Block Us.

    In 2018, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) implemented a Graduated Reentry (GRE) program, allowing eligible prisoners to serve the final months of their sentence in partial confinement, easing their way back into their communities. In 2021, GRE was supposedly expanded. Yet eligible prisoners, including myself, have encountered seemingly endless obstacles to being approved.

    Since the pandemic began, COVID lockdowns have been used to effectively suspend GRE. For the past two years, Washington prisons have been subjected to almost nonstop COVID outbreaks. Those of us incarcerated here have spent most of that time on lockdown, confined almost exclusively to our cells. Educational and rehabilitative programming has all been put on hold—programming that many of us are required to participate in as conditions of approval for GRE.

    Some prisoners who have served more than a year can become eligible for partial confinement in work-release settings in the final 12 months of their sentences, and home detention in the final five months.

    I’ve been incarcerated for more than seven years, and am slated for release in April 2023. In December 2021, I learned that I was approved for a GRE pathway that would allow me to transfer to a work-release facility in April 2022, then spend my last five months of confinement on house arrest.

    But in order to enroll, I have to first complete a “Chemical Dependency Treatment” course, apparently because of three DUI charges I incurred nearly 20 years ago.

    The person who conducted my chemical dependency evaluation told me that I didn’t seem to have a substance use disorder. At first, I panicked: Great. I won’t even be able to get into the course. But she recommended me anyway, stating that my past “criminal behavior” was similar to “using behavior.”

    No one on a wait list could enroll, and no one already in a program could graduate.

    Because of COVID restrictions, those of us incarcerated here in Monroe Correctional Complex are only able to attend classes with people from our same living unit, which means the chemical dependency class allows just six of us at a time.

    The course would take three months. My GRE eligibility was already less than three months away. I explained my situation to the instructor in early January, asking to be admitted into the class as soon as possible.

    She informed me that prisoners with court orders for treatment had priority over me, but I was sixth on the wait list. After some back-and-forth exchanges, I was up to third; I’m not sure whether this was because of my persistence or if people had just graduated and made room. This meant I’d likely finish a month or two past my eligibility date. It wasn’t ideal, but I could live with it.

    Then, on January 7, my living unit went back into quarantine—one of my neighbors had tested positive for COVID. All classes were suspended. No one on a wait list could enroll, and no one already in a program could graduate.

    Of the roughly two dozen people I’ve spoken to who have applied for GRE, all told me they had to take chemical dependency before they could be approved. Like me, many are here on non-drug related convictions and do not have a substance use disorder. Many of them were given no explanation for why they needed to take the class.

    Prisoners who participate in educational programming are significantly less likely to be reincarcerated once released. Many here signed up for college courses under the impression that they would graduate with degrees that could help them find jobs upon release, yet likely won’t be able to complete them during their sentence.

    Why isn’t the DOC providing correspondence packets?

    The majority of my incarcerated neighbors who contracted the Omicron variant in recent weeks were at least double-vaccinated. In an environment like this, there’s no way to stave off outbreaks for any extended period. If education and rehabilitative courses are prerequisites for allowing those of us at the tail ends of our sentences to leave this place, reducing both COVID and mass incarceration, there’s no valid reason they couldn’t proceed with a few simple accommodations.

    The chemical dependency curriculum is based on a packet of written materials. Why can’t the DOC give these packets to prisoners to complete from their cells? (DOC did not provide Filter with an answer by publication time.)

    In mid-February, some programs resumed. However, during the outbreak, additional prisoners were transferred in (none were transferred out, though some were released). Many of those brought in likely have court orders to take chemical dependency course—it’s very common—so it could be that I’ve been moved back down the wait list once again. My work release eligibility is six weeks away, and there’s no telling when I’ll be allowed to start the 12-week course I’m required to complete beforehand.

    GRE was supposedly designed for people like me. People who have stayed out of trouble in prison and used their time productively. People who need the opportunity to acclimatize back into society in such a way that allows us to land on our feet, once we’re finally released.

    If we can’t access these programs, at a time when it’s never been more urgent for prisons to reduce overcrowding, then why do they exist?



    Photograph via Pixabay

    • Michael is an author from Washington state. His books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award; the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, After the Change, which is taught at the University of Washington; the psychological thriller, Secret Harbor; and the middle grade story, Nightmares in Aston. His writing has also been published by a number of outlets including the Huffington Post and the Nation.

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