Last week a settlement agreement was approved by the federal court in Disability Rights Washington v. Sinclair (formerly DRW vs. Inslee), a lawsuit filed in 2018 regarding the Washington State Penitentiary’s practice of holding inmates with mental health needs in overly restrictive settings. Acting as the Plaintiff in the case, Disability Rights Washington and its co-counsel Paukert & Troppman, sued the state to challenge the Department of Corrections’ practice of housing people in the Penitentiary’s mental health units at close custody, regardless of their actual assigned custody. This “over-classification” resulted in dozens of inmates being housed in overly restrictive conditions due to their need for disability related services. Rather than being placed in their appropriate custody level, these inmates, including many who should have been in minimum custody, were locked in their cells for more than 15 hours per day and seriously limited in their access to outside recreation and therapeutic programming.
Plaintiff alleged this practice violated inmates’ civil rights, as protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Twenty years ago last month, in Olmstead v. L.C., the U.S. Supreme Court declared that unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities is a discriminatory civil rights violation. As part of this settlement, the Department has agreed that this civil right extends to inmates and has committed to change its practices and create appropriate housing at the Penitentiary to meet its obligation.
Under the terms of the settlement, Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson will retain jurisdiction over the case for 30 months. The Department requested and received appropriations of approximately $5,000,000 to implement this Agreement in the 2019-21 biennial operating and capital budgets. The Department has committed to using this money to create a medium/ minimum custody unit at the Penitentiary and increase the amount of therapeutic programming offered to inmates in that unit. The new unit will be substantially similar to the medium/ minimum custody units at the Special Offender Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex. This change will create more capacity within the Department for lower custody mental health beds, and will provide inmates with mental health needs access to increased programming and services.