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Coalition’s Efforts Amid Coronavirus Derail Plans For New Women’s Prison

The onset of COVID-19—and the need for social distancing—gave an unexpected boost to efforts against plans for a new prison in Washington.

Elderly woman in prison
Getty Images

In the midst of a pandemic, including stay-at-home orders and social distancing, organizers in Washington have managed to derail a state plan for a new women’s prison, at least temporarily.

Opened in 1971 with a capacity of 738, the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) has been overcrowded for years, currently confining 876 women. To ease the overcrowding, the Department of Corrections has been planning to build an additional women’s prison on the site of the closed Maple Lane youth detention center in Thurston County’s Grand Mound, a rural area of approximately 3,189 people.

The first step for the DOC was to convince Thurston County’s Board of County Commissioners to approve a zoning change allowing a prison on the site. In 2019, Thurston County entered into a contract with the DOC, which agreed to pay approximately $82,875 to research the environmental, public health, and transportation impacts of changing the county’s zoning code to allow for prison construction.

Those plans, however, faced overwhelming community opposition from the start. Organizers formed a coalition under the banner “No New Women’s Prison” to stop the zoning change. Some had been involved in efforts to stop a youth jail in Seattle. Others were involved in anti-violence work or working with people in prisons. Residents of Grand Mound also voiced their opposition to a prison within two miles of three schools. 

The onset of the novel coronavirus—and the need for social distancing—gave an unexpected boost to efforts to halt the plans. As COVID-19 spread across the state, a coalition of people fighting against the prison jettisoned in-person meetings, pivoting instead to online meetings and campaigns. This allowed other organizers to get involved. Pre-COVID meetings had typically taken place in Seattle. Traffic frequently turned the 70-mile drive into a three-hour ordeal and many could not make the trek each week. That included Malika Lamont, the project manager for VOCAL Washington and a longtime resident of Thurston County. With the switch to online meetings, she was able to attend regularly, contributing her own experiences with doing syringe exchange and harm reduction in Grand Mound and around the county. 

In early April, campaign organizers partnered with Survived and Punished, a network of organizers working with incarcerated abuse survivors, for a social media push urging people to contact the governor and county commissioners voicing their opposition to the prison. The social media push also brought new faces to the next campaign meeting; attendance ballooned from 15 to 50. 

It seems that organizers’ efforts have paid off—for now. On April 23, county commissioners, citing community opposition, unanimously decided to take the rezoning proposal off its docket. Commissioner Tye Menser explained, “I’ve gotten input from all sorts of folks in the community. Some are activist groups, but others are very local people.” 

The DOC, however, plans to continue its efforts for a new women’s prison on that site. In an email to The Appeal, Jeremy S. Barclay, the department’s engagement and outreach director, wrote: “The Maple Lane Corrections Center project was removed from the docket due to the State of Washington’s current ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ emergency order in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic.” The project, he wrote, “will resume its forward momentum as the state again returns to its operations.”

Should the DOC follow through on its plan to further the project, “we will continue to oppose it,” Lamont said. “We are still organizing. If it is not sited in Thurston County, we will oppose it wherever.” 

While organizers strategized to stop the new prison, concerns about prison crowding—and the inability to social distance within—grew as COVID-19 spread throughout jails and prisons across the country. To decrease prison populations and the possible spread of the disease behind bars, Governor Jay Inslee commuted the sentences of 1,100 people imprisoned for nonviolent convictions on April 15. All had already been scheduled for release by June 29. The governor has identified approximately only 60 women for release. 

Ray Rhodes had hoped that his wife, Cynthia Miller, incarcerated at WCCW, would be among them. In 2016, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison for assault, a charge that Rhodes says is under appeal. Miller, now 60, has significant health issues, including lupus and severe complications from a transvaginal mesh device, all of which leave her susceptible to COVID-19. “She has no immune system,” Rhodes said. “If she catches the virus, she’ll die.” He’s confused as to why Miller and other highly vulnerable people were not among those identified for release. 

In prison, Miller cannot practice social distancing—she shares a cell with another woman, who works throughout the unit as a janitor. On April 3, acknowledging her increased risks, the DOC offered to place her in self-quarantine—a room with other high-risk women with virtually no ability to leave the room. Basically, explained Rhodes, the prison was offering to place his wife in segregation. She declined. 

Rhodes acknowledges that an additional prison would reduce overcrowding at WCCW, though not in the foreseeable future. But, he continued, an additional prison would not stop the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that his wife and others are subjected to within the prison. “I don’t know that having another facility would help with the problems in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Miller might have been released under a lawsuit filed in March by Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm. The suit sought the release of prisoners over age 50, individuals with underlying health conditions that would make COVID-19 a death sentence, and people with less than 18 months remaining on their sentences. The firm estimated that the state’s prisons confine over 4,600 people with underlying health conditions and 3,700 people over 50. On April 23, however, the state Supreme Court rejected the suit

Now, the couple’s only hope is in Miller’s second request for a medical furlough, which would allow her temporary release during the pandemic to not only self-isolate at home, but procure needed surgeries and follow-up care. She filed her first request two years ago; she has yet to receive a response to either.