In March, lawyers representing some 600 female prisoners at the state’s only all-female prison, the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), returned to court to seek continued federal oversight of inmate health issues. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, and the Northwest Women’s Law Center argue that the state has not lived up to the terms of the Hallett vs. Payne judgment, which required prisons to improve the prison’s quality of care for the WCCW’s 743 female prisoners.
In a written response, prison media representative Patricia Wachtel strongly disagrees. “We feel we have met the stipulations and judgments and in many cases have exceeded the requirements in setting up an adequate system, employing quality staff, and addressing problems as they arise.”
According to Aaron Caplan, staff attorney of the Washington chapter of the ACLU, particular attention in this case has been focused on two areas — the WCCW’s dental care (provided by the aforementioned Dr. Yank) and mental health care system. Patricia Arthur, project director of the Institutions Project of Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, says the mental health system has even deeper problems, including inadequate staffing, neglect of patients in crises, and violent or degrading treatment of mentally ill women.
Women housed in the mental health ward of WCCW — many of whom suffer from severe depression and psychotic disorders — are in desperate need of consistent care by licensed mental health care professionals, Arthur says. The prison insists that all inmates have access to mental health care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
By neglecting the prisoners’ serious psychiatric counseling needs, Arthur argues the prison has witnessed a sharp increase in serious suicide attempts and incidents of self-mutilation (also known as cutting). WCCW representatives neither confirm nor deny this increase, saying only, “statistics that show an increase in numbers of self-harm or suicide attempts can be deceiving.”
To make matters worse, prisoners with mental illness are allegedly punished for hurting themselves. “[Infractions] can result in being placed in segregation, loss of ‘good time,’ [or] loss of job,” says Arthur. The prison’s policy is completely understandable, counters WCCW’s Wachtel, as infractions are a way of keeping a formal record of inmate behavior.
In transcripts of court proceedings, witnesses describe the treatment they received after admitting to feeling suicidal or committing acts of self-harm. Justine O’Neill, a 29-year-old prisoner, suffers from bipolar disorder and from post-traumatic stress disorder. In December 1998, she cut herself with a razor blade. According to O’Neill’s testimony, she never received counseling for the incident, but was punished with a loss of 10 days from her good-conduct time. Allissa McCune, a 39-year-old prisoner housed in the mental health ward for severe psychiatric problems including multipersonality disorder and panic and anxiety disorder, cut the brachial artery in her upper arm in a suicide attempt. After recovering from surgery, she was given extra hours of work duty, placed in a one-on-one watch in a small room, and fined $50 for medical expenses.