Wednesday, June 17, 1998


The prison next door

By Julie Sullivan and Karen Dorn Steele
The Spokesman-Review

Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review
Inside Airway Heights Corrections Center, two correctional officers supervise 256 inmates in one of six housing units. "Everybody has a role in the security of this facility," Capt. Robert Herzog says. "It's job one."

The last place you can go on Sprague Avenue is prison.

More than 2,000 men convicted of murder, kidnapping, theft, drug and sex crimes live at the western tip of Spokane's main street at 11919 W. Sprague. They share 70 square feet of white concrete cells they call "houses." In the evenings, after work or school, they use their own keys to go "home."

There are no stone walls, no bars, no barking dogs at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Just a 100-acre compound where felons live with the sins of their past and the state's vision of the future.

The prison is a model that by many measures has run smoothly for five years. Fears of escapes and skyrocketing crime on the West Plains have faded since the prison opened in 1992.

"People have no idea what those buildings are out there," says Airway Heights city councilman Claude Hicks. "You'd never know it was a prison."

"It's like a secret - not that it was intended to be," says Kaye Adkins, regional administrator for the Department of Corrections in Eastern Washington.

Despite explosive growth, there have been no riots, no escapes from the medium-security prison and only three serious staff assaults - a fraction of the problems suffered at new prisons elsewhere. It is clean and controlled.

"Sometimes it looks like a college campus and the bell just rang and everyone is walking by with books," says correctional Sgt. James Nozawa.

Yet, inmates who lived here just three years ago wouldn't recognize the place.

New inmates entering the Washington prison system at a rate of 95 a month are squeezing offenders into increasingly crowded living units at Airway Heights. Built for 1,936 inmates, Airway is counting infirmary beds to boost capacity to 2,096. Most of the newcomers require a higher level of custody. They're younger and more aggressive.

"The character of the entire population has changed. We are now 70 percent violent offenders," says prison Superintendent Kay Walter.

No death row inmates live here. The prison has fewer murderers than the Washington State Penitentiary or Clallam Bay. Still, inmates who make trouble at Walla Walla are shipped to Airway Heights.

On March 10, officers at Walla Walla fired 11 shots into the air when 150 inmates prepared to fight in the yard. The next day, 39 of them were bused to "the hole," or segregation at Airway Heights.

The 64-bed segregation unit, a jail within the prison, is so stripped down it looks impossible to damage. Nonetheless, a Walla Walla inmate managed to tear apart outlets and a shower, break windows and start a flood by clogging the toilet.

Elsewhere in Airway Heights, inmates have built pipe bombs, made homemade liquor, shot up black tar heroin, plotted to rape an officer and created body-covering tatoos.

Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review
After arriving on the bus from the state prison intake center at Shelton, Wash., Jeremy Linthicum of Tacoma is strip-searched before entering Airway Heights Corrections Center. Correctional officers say inmates hide contraband in the most unusual places. "Use your imagination," says one officer.

At shift change, officers learn about incidents such as the inmate who stood next to his sleeping cellmate with a pencil whispering he was going to stab his eyes out.

"We take people who have been failures in everything they've done in their lives and who have been thrown out of communities and expect correctional staff to have them behave and have no problems," says Eldon Vail, assistant deputy secretary of Corrections. "That's not realistic."

"Every time I walk in, I think, 'What will happen today?' " says Sgt. Dan Van Ogle.

Living inside

In the yard, the rain blows sideways.

Inmates hunch their shoulders against the wet and wind, crossing hundreds of yards to get to dinner. Wheelchairs wobble over the wet concrete. Inside the chow hall, men in damp jackets sit at small metal tables for four, their knees practically touching.

Members of the Aryan Nations live here, also the Crips and Black Gangster Disciples. Brothers from one family. Once, a father and son. The former Pierce County auditor was here. A top Seattle paramedic. Four men with life sentences. Dozens who speak no English.

It is noisy and damp and unbearably close.

Inmates can travel between buildings only at designated times, but fast or slow, they're headed toward shelter. Many officers must remain in the rain. A small bronze dog sits on the concrete nearby. The statue's name: Stuck.

The $113 million prison is actually two prisons: a minimum-security camp for about 440 inmates and a medium-security prison for about 1,600. The entire compound has 35 buildings that include five dining rooms, two libraries, five factories, a gymnasium, a sweat lodge, a woodshop, a dental office and an inmate store that sells nearly $100,000 a month in soap, snacks, cigarettes and TVs.

When the prison opened, half the staff at Pine Lodge Pre-Release rushed to apply. State workers from Lakeland Village, Eastern State Hospital and prisons across the region poured in. Half of the $38.5 million annual budget goes to wages.

More than 587 people now report for work, including 281 custody staff.

But the whole operation hinges on an implausible few.

Two correctional officers work inside each housing unit with up to 256 felons and little more to protect them than their personalities. Officers have access to weapons, but don't carry guns or even pepper spray.

"Our survival skills come from our vocal chords," Capt. Robert Herzog says.

Old prisons were built to separate offenders from officers by glass and bars. Airway Heights is the state's full-scale attempt to bring them closer together.

This form of prison management, called direct supervision, was created by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the early 1970s for use in short-term jails. Its chief appeal: It saves money, costing about 40 percent less to build, staff and run than a traditional prison, the National Institute of Corrections says.

Its popularity spread when studies also showed the officers' presence among inmates dramatically cut assaults, homosexual rape, vandalism and response time in emergencies.

Such prisons depend less on electronic surveillance, motor-driven locks and barred windows. Fewer staff are needed because officers don't stay isolated in control booths, but are constantly moving.

At Airway, officers work surrounded by inmates. They talk to them frequently, gauging their baseline or normal behavior, and using common courtesy to get inmates to comply.

Staff arriving from Walla Walla and Clallam Bay were frankly skeptical.

"When I first came here, I hated it," says Van Ogle, who transferred from Clallam Bay. "I thought, 'I can't do this. You expect me to be out here with them?' "

Van Ogle went on to master the style so well he was named Officer of the Year.

With salaries starting at $24,000 with full medical benefits, corrections is a hot career for a high school graduate. An eager officer can earn $50,000 a year with overtime. The prison superintendent earns $69,996.

Six years ago, Mauricea Parker was an Airway Heights mother with a fine arts degree so worried about the prison she went to public hearings.

Today, she's a correctional officer whose job takes her from the inmate kitchen to the visiting area, to the recreation area to the camp.

Parker has a new career, a new salary - twice what she earned as a youth counselor - and a beautiful new house.

She loves what the prison has done for her family and her town. But she no longer lives in Airway Heights.

"I kept running into former inmates and their families at the grocery store."

Officers encounter ex-inmates in Spokane health clubs, restaurants and malls. Parker and others don't wear their uniforms in the community or advertise what they do. That's partly because of inmates and partly because of Hollywood and how prisons operated in the past.

"We're the Rodney Dangerfields of law enforcement," Sgt. Tony Bellotti says. "People look at us like we're knuckle-draggers."

'You're always outnumbered'

For years, the joke was that Washington prisons hired anyone who wanted the job and didn't have a felony record. Guards used physical force daily.

Today, officers resent the term "guard. " All physical contact with inmates is videotaped and professional standards are repeated like a mantra. Officers train at a state academy, and are backed by a special response team outfitted with assault gear, mesh helmets and gas masks. They don't use pepper spray or restraint holds without trying them on each other first.

"The job is much more complex than it used to be," Vail says. "Officers today have to know an incredible amount about infectious diseases. We have a much higher percentage of mentally ill inmates and gang members, a whole array of folks we didn't have to deal with before."

At Airway, two factors seem to work in staff's favor: age and the type of offender. The average age at Airway Heights is 37. At Clallam Bay, where the average age is 30, younger inmates earned the prison the name "Gladiator School."

One in every three inmates at Airway is a sex offender - only Twin Rivers has more - and officials say that generally they are more compliant.

Still, no one says "safety" without knocking on wood.

"You're always outnumbered," says correctional Sgt. Nozawa. "Sometimes you push the wrong button, and anything can happen."

Prison officials say it takes well-trained, professional staff to make it work. But the prison does not require psychiatric or drug testing for new hires. Airway Heights is scheduled to become a pilot program for employment screening that may include those tests in the future, spokesman Cly Evans says.

And, a 1995 audit by the Department of Labor and Industries found that officers in the housing units at Airway Heights are regularly required to do duty alone or with "intermittents," temporary employees who have no academy training.

Full-time officers attend a four-week academy for jail and prison officers across the state. Direct supervision training occurs at the prison.

The audit also said radio communication is often poor. Female officers are required to go into shower areas, upsetting inmates.

Despite the audit's recommendations, staffing has not changed. As for female staffers, "officers are officers," says Evans, adding that women do not conduct strip searches except in emergency situations.

The Teamsters, which represents Airway Heights workers, went so far as to hire a public relations firm to raise awareness over the use of untrained, intermittent staff, and the ratio of staff to inmates.

"You read about someone convicted of a crime and they go into a black hole and we think they're off the streets, out of our neighborhood," says union representative Mike Wilson. "We don't realize the staff in prison is someone's mother, father, wife, husband."

In May 1997, a 47-year-old rapist asked an officer to open a supply storage room and then attacked her, forcing her inside. She fought, screaming loud enough to draw help. In a separate incident, another officer attacked by an inmate with a broom stick was saved by an inmate who intervened. Both officers returned to work.

In the last year, officers have been hit, kicked, spit on and had inmates blow their nose on them. They've been head-butted. They've had their feet run over with wheelchairs.

Direct supervision prisons can feel more dangerous to staff, especially after an assault.

"It's hard on officers because the inmates are at you all the time, you can't get away from them, you can't stay in your control booth and talk on the phone," prison superintendent Walter says.

Safety also depends on the proper classification of inmates so the most dangerous ones never arrive, and misbehaving ones are sent elsewhere. But as the state prison population swells, there is no place to send them.

The difficulty of the job is obvious. Between the growth and the inexperience of the staff, turnover at Airway Heights is 16 percent - closer to the turnover rate at Walla Walla during riots 20 years ago than its current 3 percent.

For employees who elect to stay, there's a cost. Correctional officers can develop a tough, cool-headed, aggressive "working personality" as police officers do, with the same inability to turn it off, writes Keith Farrington, a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla.

"This is a thankless job, a very negative job," Sgt. Steve DeMars says. "Staff has to say 'no' 99 percent of the time. There are race issues and gender issues and many inmates feel like they are the victim."

Still, DeMars comes to work an hour early and stays late because he loves his job. He stocks his desk with candy and other strokes to support his staff. He believes he's making a difference.

Others are not so optimistic. One officer heads to Airway Heights each day with these words to his wife:

"Time to go to hell."

Lifting weights, filing grievances

Old-timers at Airway Heights miss the "good old days" when there were fewer inmates, greater freedom within the facility and more predictable cellmates.

Still, Airway appeals to many.

"This place is a summer camp compared to Georgia," says Michael Gallagher, 26, convicted of auto theft. He prefers it to county jail.

"It's easier time," he says. "The guards don't mess with you unless you mess with them."

Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review
Linzey Smith pumps iron in the prison gym. Inmates pay $5 every three months to use the weight room.

Inmates with jobs get a $50 a month stipend for full-time work. They cook the meals, clean the units and keep the grounds. They attend classes and can get their own oatmeal at night before bedtime.

Since House Bill 2010, a 1995 "get tough on criminals" law, they also make medical co-payments, pay to lift weights and to take ceramics. Thirty-five cents from every dollar they earn or are sent goes to a savings account, victim's compensation and the cost of their upkeep.

If they have a problem, they can file a grievance.

So many offenders file grievances that Airway Heights officials held a special meeting with inmate representatives in mid-May to discuss how the number could be reduced.

"Grievances here are the highest in the state," says inmate Mark Cook, a veteran of Walla Walla and a former member of the Black Panthers.

"It's correct we have a lot of grievances and that there are more here than the average number throughout the state," prison spokesman Evans says.

"But we are a new institution, and it's a given that an institution that's working out start-up problems will have grievances," he says.

Inmates blame Airway Height's increasing number of seemingly arbitrary rules.

For instance, they can't put their shoes under their beds, shave without a shirt on, receive perfumed letters from their wives and girlfriends, or get magazine subscriptions paid for by their families or friends.

Most inmates channel their frustrations into writing grievances, says Cook, who is serving time for bank robbery and assault. He works in the prison law library and is part of a federal lawsuit challenging the prison's ban on sexually explicit magazines.

He'd like to see the state allow the inmate clubs that used to exist at Walla Walla: Gestalt therapy. Bikers' clubs. Hispanic, black and Native American circles. The clubs were an outlet for prisoners, Cook says.

"Rehabilitation is now gone. People are already damaged when they are put in, and prison just compounds it," he says.

Several inmates filed grievances over Airway's practice of leaving bright lights on 24 hours a day in the segregation unit, also called "the hole." Prisoners remain in the windowless cells 23 hours a day and are not allowed to mingle with others. There is no radio or TV.

The dispute is now before a federal judge, who will decide this year whether the lights are an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment.

The mail room is another sore point. Inmates complain constantly that they don't get packages, money and stamps from their families and friends.

They also complain about time on their hands. Many want to work, but there are jobs for just 800. Only 700 are enrolled in school or vocational training. There is friction between older inmates and newer gang members.

Even release dates are not firm. If an inmate working with a counselor does not complete a release plan and find an address where he can live, he can stay in prison weeks or months beyond his sentence.

'It becomes a warehouse'

One concern inmates and staff at Airway Heights share is fear over more and more dangerous inmates arriving.

Experts in direct supervision facilities say overcrowding isn't just uncomfortable, it's dangerous.

"When it's that big, it becomes a warehouse," says Peter Perroncello, superintendent of one of the most successful direct supervision facilities, the 405-bed Norfolk County Sheriff's Correctional Center in Dedham, Mass.

Staff can't search cells adequately. They become overwhelmed with other duties and demands. When they can't speak with inmates, they lose the critical "baseline" measure of how inmates are are doing.

"At some point you're going to push the envelope and you're going to burn staff out. These are facilities run by people. Who really runs the facility is the officer in housing units," Perroncello says.

Walter says the prison is staffed for the typical times, not for emergencies, and is limited by the cost: each new position costs $175,000. She'd like to see a study of work load on officers because rising population does increase duties.

"I don't know what the magic number is."

Corrections officials in Olympia who set staffing levels based on "model" formulas say they're comfortable with the ratio of staff to inmates.

But Airway Heights officers have pulled visiting legislators aside and met with reporters confidentially to voice their fears.

Most direct supervision jails and prisons operate on a ratio of 35 to 70 offenders for every 1 officer. At Airway, the ratio at certain units reaches 80 to 1 or more.

"When people say our ratio is 115 to 1 my comment is: It's a disaster waiting to happen," says Perroncello.

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Also in this report
  • The prison next door
  • Warnings fall on deaf ears
  • Compromising positions
  • Inmate fights for right to receive mail
  • Prison locksmith holds key job
  • Communities face varying impact from prisons, report finds
  • A marriage made in prison
  • Part one of six
  • Part two of six
  • Part three of six