Illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Staffing levels were already critically low in Washington state prisons prior to Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate. 

The mandate, which required all government workers to get jabbed or get fired, didn’t help the personnel problem. 

Retention problems have resulted in staff rearrangements that have made life difficult for prisoners and employees alike. 

But at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), the frustrations do not stop there. A series of other recent complications — from an ant infestation to broken phones, ice machines and dishwashers — have prisoners increasingly on edge.

According to a report in the Union-Bulletin, a local newspaper, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2018 posted more than 745,000 hours of overtime across all of its facilities. An analysis by the consulting firm CGL declared that amount “excessive for a system of this size.” 

The study had been requested by Teamsters 117, a union representing prison staff, which filed a formal grievance protesting the inadequate staffing in 2019. 

By Oct. 19, 2021, approximately 350 DOC employees had either quit or been fired as a result of the governor’s vaccine mandate. 

At WSP, where I currently reside, 49 employees had been fired for refusing to get vaccinated. Making matters worse, a recreation employee said, the prison is averaging more retirings than hirings. 

In March of this year, as much of society began to open back up, so too did educational and rehabilitative programming inside WSP. Now, however, many of these programs are canceled four or five days a week due to the staffing shortage. 

Other outlets beyond our cells have also been limited. The yard, where prisoners enjoy recreations, was operational seven days a week throughout the pandemic, except during lockdowns. Since March, however, we have only been able to spend an average of two days per week in the yard — and fewer if temperatures rise above 89 degrees, as they often do in this area.

For the most part, the gym has remained closed. 

The month of June was particularly difficult at WSP. 

On June 2, Associate Superintendent Steven Barker posted a memo stating 24 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. He had placed the institution under “facility wide cluster status,” activating a flurry of quarantine and testing protocols that affects the entire prison. 

On June 4, we were confined to our cell for the day. According to the shift lieutenant, the prison did not have enough line staff to manage the units. 

The following day, while in line waiting for medication, the guard — whose job is to ensure prisoners take their medication — appeared to be sleeping while standing up. I got her attention and said she looked very tired. She replied that this was her third double shift in a row.

Problems continued to pile up that month.  

The cable TV went out throughout the facility and was only partially returned by June 19. 

There was an infestation of ants in Adams Unit. The unit sergeant said that the prison had contacted every exterminator within a 100-mile radius and could not find one willing to come in. 

The ice machine broke while the outside temperatures climbed into the 80s. We have not been notified when maintenance will come to fix it. 

Two of three phones in Adams Unit B mod have not worked since March 2022, leaving one phone for 38 prisoners. This caused distress on Father’s Day, when we were locked down until 2:30 pm because of the staff shortage; only then could we line up and wait for our 20-minute call on the one functional phone.

And, according to a prisoner who works in the kitchen, the dishwasher has been broken. Staff have been waiting for the parts to fix it. As a result, we have received breakfast and lunch boats consisting of peanut butter and corn syrup sandwiches, powdered milk and oatmeal packets, and bran bars and muffins that most people have not eaten because of the poor flavor.

Already agitated for these reasons, the prison population took it as an insult when we were confined to our cells on June 15 and 16 for what officials called “staff appreciation day.” 

According to a mental health staff member who presented awards at the event, staff were treated to pulled pork sandwiches and ice cream.

Because of the staffing shortage, sergeants, guards and mental health staff have told me, things are going to get worse before they get better.

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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Jeffrey McKee

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington.