Here’s a situation. My unit posted a new program: We can take in dogs from the local humane society. I was sure I would be accepted because I had participated in a similar program taking care of cats.
“You can’t participate in the dog program because you were dropped from the cat program for threatening” another prisoner, the sergeant told me.
I quipped back: “I was not dropped from the cat program, [the prisoner] was not even here when I was in the cat program, and I never threatened him.”
“Well, why is it in your electronic file?” said the sergeant.
I didn’t know why, but it will cost me a lot of money to find out.
A prisoner has a right to personally inspect his central file at no cost. But the electronic file is different.
Prison staff use the electronic file to make decisions such as a prisoner’s custody level, privileges and conditions. Staff can also use information from this file to deny someone’s participation in rehabilitative programs.
For us to access our own file, however, the department of corrections requires prisoners to mail a Public Records Act request to its Public Disclosure Unit in Olympia, Washington, and pre-pay 15 cents per page plus postage for a copy.
The prison commissary, where we purchase stationary, medication or nutritional supplements, charges 70 cents for a pre-stamped envelope, $1 for 50 sheets of writing paper, and 24 cents for a single pen, according to commissary records. Including sales tax, it costs $2.05 to send a single letter.
Even though, I have one of the higher-paying prison jobs, I can’t afford it.
I make 47 cents an hour, or $42 per month after various deductions. Out of that, I have to pay for soap, toothpaste, toothbrush and floss, which cost me $11.52. Shampoo, deodorant and shaving cream cost another $20.56. I don’t have much left over after these basic necessities to purchase copies of my electronic file.
I asked the department of corrections why it does not allow personal inspection of the electronic file. A spokeswoman said it was because it would pose a safety concern.
“Allowing offenders to access electronic systems would violate department policy and statewide information technology policy,” the department’s public records officer told me.
This did not make much sense because we access computers for work, education and legal research.
The officer also provided several other questionable reasons for not providing access to the electronic file. The most bizarre explanation she provided: If the department were to place this information on a CD, “CDs can easily be broken in two and the sharp shards used as a shank.”
Prisoners can purchase and retain music CDs, per department policy.
According to a former records technician at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, prisoners’ files are routinely disorganized, missing information or contain documents and information for the wrong prisoners.
I believe this. I have found other prisoners’ disciplinary records in my file as well as decisions that were ultimately dismissed in my favor, even though they are supposed to be removed.
It seems that a record of a threat that resulted in me being dropped from the cat program is in there too.
In the end, I decided it was not worth the money to get the file and to correct the error. I will instead spend that money on rehabilitative books to ensure my own success upon release.
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.