Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

“This place is falling apart,” I think to myself as I cover my face and make my way through the showers. The smell is unbearable in the small stall I’m supposed to wash myself in. The towel helps to mask the horrible fumes. The smell plagues the units at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), constructed over a hundred years ago.

The smell isn’t the only problem. I frequently swat at gnat-like flies that emerge from the drains in the disgusting concrete floors from which the vapor emerges. The layers of paint do a poor job of concealing the black mold that has been there for decades.

Prisoners have done what they can to shine light on the situation. Several have filed complaints about the toxic smells, insect infestation, and other conditions of the crumbling prison.

In his initial grievance filed in  2016, a prisoner said: “[There are] noxious gasses…emanating from floor drains…[t]hese drains…have little winged, gnat-like insects emerging from them and are infesting the shower area.” His grievance was pushed all the way to a level-two appeal, yet he was continually told the prison maintenance had already addressed the issue and the smell was gone. He resided in the unit though and knew this was not true.

The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) remedy was to pour water down the drains, claiming the smell was the result of pipes just being dried out. Maintenance workers instructed the guards who manage the living units to have prisoners who work as porters and clean units for less than $50 a month, to carry out the task. Over the years, workers have poured countless buckets of water, bleach, and other cleaning materials down the drains in an attempt to end the grotesque smell. It has never faded.

Not satisfied, the complainant reached out to the WDOC Ombuds. He got this response: “After visiting C-Unit [at WSR], I agree with you that the solution of pouring bleach into the drains is not working.” The issue was to be discussed with facility staff and the problem would be addressed, but nothing was ever done.

In 2019 another inmate  filed his initial grievance. His claims were identical to the first: A raw sewage stench emerging from floor drains. After appealing his grievance to level three and not satisfied with WDOC’s response — “The facility is aware of your concerns and is working to identify and fix any issues that may exist,” he filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington.

Robert Landis, the Consolidated Facilities Manager of the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), the parent institute to WSR, which oversees maintenance and repair operations, claimed in court documents that he and other DOC officials “worked diligently to identify and resolve [the] issue” and admitted that it was very difficult to pinpoint and solve. Nevertheless, he stated the issue was resolved in August of 2019.

Yet in July 2020, another prisoner filed an initial grievance making the same claims of toxic gasses leaking from drains into the living units. In response, The WDOC Grievance Coordinator disregarded many of the claims but admitted “the WSR living units were identified as “negative-pressure buildings, which caused sewer gasses to be pulled through the floor drains.” This, after maintenance has always claimed the smells were due to dried out pipelines.

The majority of claims about the raw sewage smells have been dismissed or downplayed as over-dramatized complaints. Never has serious construction or remediation taken place to correct the issues prisoners have brought to light. The maintenance department claims to have dealt with the issue, but the smells say otherwise.

“Living like this is nothing short of a slow and constant feeling of torture,” one prisoner told me. “I am tired of smelling shit all day and killing flies, but what can I do? I live in this filthy prison and just suck it up. I know if I complain I will just be shipped out to a prison far away from my loved ones.”

He is not alone in this. WSR is the only prison in Washington that is close to the Seattle area, making it a desirable place to serve one’s sentence. Many prisoners simply deal with the smell, flies, and mold, without filing formal complaints.

In 2019, prisoners took matters into their own hands. As thousands of flies swarmed the living units, plastic trash bags were taped over the drains, and prisoners were finally able to seek refuge from the smell and infestation. The resolution was short-lived, however. Maintenance workers claimed it was hazardous to have the drains covered and demanded the bags be removed. Hundreds of flies escaped to swarm the unit and the smell was unbearable.

At a family council meeting in October 2020, with prisoners’ loved ones, prison administrators, and maintenance employees, dozens of steps were listed that had been taken and will continue to be taken to discover the cause of the mysteriously foul smell. (Proving the issue was clearly not resolved, as claimed earlier.) 

“We investigated thoroughly, covered drain openings with heavy mats, physically traced out all the waste line plumbing,” an administrator said.   

Some of what was discovered included a hole in the waste pipe under the prison’s kitchen, dead rodents,  and cells with rotting food. 

“We believe the smell is intermittent based on delivery of Monroe/Sultan’s composted biosolids, which are deposited at our wastewater treatment facility,” the administrator added. “We will be monitoring delivery closely.”

However, prisoners cannot take comfort in assurances of locating the toxic smells and addressing them, or creating a safe and healthy living environment. The infrastructure of this aging prison has reached a stage where decades of simply placing bandages over serious structural damage has come to a head.

Hundred-year-old prisons with crumbling infrastructures shouldn’t house human beings. Prisoners shouldn’t be forced to breathe toxic fumes or the smell of decaying rodents. The men and women who reside behind prison walls and fences wrapped in razor wire were sentenced to a loss of their freedom, not to live in unhealthy conditions.

These conditions are the definition of cruel and unusual punishment, and a violation of any American’s constitutional rights. It is time we take a real look into changing the current system and start treating all Americans — including prisoners — as the citizens they are.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Christopher Blackwell

Christopher Blackwell is an incarcerated journalist in Washington state and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the co-founder of Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass evidence-based criminal justice reform that leads with racial justice. Christopher has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, HuffPost, and many more outlets. He is currently working on a book about solitary confinement. He has been incarcerated for more than half his life. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.