In 2016, Disability Rights Washington was contacted by constituents who were being held in close custody conditions in the BAR Units at the Washington State Penitentiary, despite their medium or even minimum custody status. These inmates reported that they were held in restrictive conditions with limited access to programming, educational services, and dayroom or yard time, solely due to their need for mental health services. Based on these reports, Disability Rights Washington began an investigation and found that more than 70 inmates in the BAR units who were classified as medium or minimum custody were being held under close custody conditions due to their need for disability-related services. Many of these inmates had not had an infraction for months, if not years, and yet were still being confined in one of the most restrictive settings in the prison system due to their disability.
After concluding its investigation, Disability Rights Washington alerted the Department of Corrections that these classification practices violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and its implementing regulations. In 2016 and 2017, Disability Rights Washington and the Department held a series of meetings to discuss how to address this discriminatory practice but were unable to come to a solution. In April 2018, Disability Rights Washington and co-counsel Paukert and Troppmann filed a federal complaint challenging the Department’s discriminatory classification practices, with DRW serving as organizational plaintiff.
In July 2019, a settlement agreement was approved by the federal court. 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.
In December 2021 Disability Rights Washington conducted a final monitoring visit to the BAR. During that visit the DRW team spoke with incarcerated people in the units as well as staff. Following that visit DRW agreed with defendants that the facility is in substantial compliance with the terms of the settlement and moved for dismissal, which the court ordered on January 7, 2022. For more information about DRW’s monitoring in that case, what the settlement required, and what DRW found, you can review DRW’s December 2021 letter here.
Here is the full press release:
Settlement Approved in DRW v. Sinclair (formerly DRW v. Inslee)
Release Date: July 11, 2019
Staff Attorney, Disability Rights Washington
(206) 324-1521 x 236
AVID Program Director, Disability Rights Washington
(206) 324-1521 x 239
SPOKANE -Last week a settlement agreement was approved by the federal court in 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.
Read the Settlement Agreement here.
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin: Mental health care at penitentiary to shift
The Spokesman-Review: State agrees to penitentiary improvements for inmates with mental health needs
Spokane Public Radio: WA settles lawsuit over 15-hour-a-day lockdown for inmates with mental illness
KLCC: WA settles lawsuit over 15-hour-a-day lockdown for inmates with mental illness