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Christmas in the Pen: About 16,000 in WA Prisons Today

December 24, 2007

Monroe, WA/Steilacoom, WA - About 16,000 people spend Christmas in Washington prisons, and 3,500 more beds are being added by 2009. After the Reformatory Unit at Monroe Correctional Complex was "locked down" Dec. 19-21 following fighting and threats, 26 people were put in "segregation," or solitary confinement.

It's a controversial response that prison officials say is used for discipline and safety. Reform advocates disagree, saying it's an example of what needs to be changed about the system. Lea Zengage of the prison reform group "Justice Works!" says overall, the system isn't working to prevent crime.

"It's exacerbating all the problems that cause crime, rather than solving them. And that's not to say that there aren't some people who are dangerous that we need to be protected from; we're not saying that at all. We're saying, 'Let's look at what's happening and solve those problems.'"

Zengage cites drug addiction, mental illness and poverty as root causes of crime.

The lockdown also may be evidence of just how tough the holidays are for prisoners. While an effort is made to acknowledge Christmas with special meals, religious services and family visits, Judy Hubert, a public information officer for the McNeil Island Corrections Center in Steilacoom, says it's an especially stressful time for inmates whose families don't write or visit.

"There are still some that just have difficulty during this time of year, and we talk to staff a lot about suicide awareness: just watching their baseline and talking with the offenders, and make an extra check to see how everybody's doing during the holiday."

Hubert estimates about 5 percent of the prison population is in segregation.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA