MONROE — For a century, the Washington State Reformatory has housed hundreds of prisoners. By the end of October, it will be empty.
Both cell blocks in the reformatory are being shuttered as part of the state’s response to empty prison beds, staffing shortages and funding cuts. Hundreds of Monroe prisoners are being relocated around the state — upending life for prisoners and their family members.
Reformatory units are undergoing what is called a “warm closure,” meaning they will not be staffed but will still have utilities connected if they need to be reopened.
Overall, about 450 people are being moved out of the reformatory. It’s one of five units that make up the Monroe Correctional Complex. As incarcerated men load onto buses to be driven across the state, many feel anxiety for how it could affect their health, their family relationships and their access to education behind bars.
Many incarcerated men have said Monroe has a safer culture compared to other prisons around the state.
“When I leave, there are so many factors that will negatively impact my life,” prisoner Bryan Glant said.
Glant’s father is 74. If the son is transferred, his father will have difficulty visiting. Glant is Jewish, he said, and he feels comfortable openly practicing at Monroe. When he was housed at another prison east of the Cascades, it was clear that other non-Jewish prisoners “let’s just say frowned upon my religious practice.”
Officials plan to fully vacate the reformatory by Oct. 31, Department of Corrections spokesperson Rachel Ericson said.
For years, state Corrections had discussed closures at the Monroe prison to cut costs. The facility opened in 1910. It has the highest operating cost out of all the state’s prisons, according to a 2019 report.
The Daily Herald spoke with about a half-dozen men imprisoned at the reformatory who are afraid to be moved elsewhere.
One concern is a recent surge in COVID-19 behind bars. Only about 40 percent of corrections officers and other prison employees statewide have been vaccinated, according to the Department of Corrections. That number is almost 20% lower than the percentage of vaccinated inmates.
Prisoners in the reformatory worry that doubling up in cells and being moved to other prisons will put them at a renewed risk of contracting the virus.
“Just because you’re incarcerated doesn’t mean you should be subject to inhumane treatment,” prisoner Jojo Deogracias Ejonga said. “You still deserve some type of dignity. Your health shouldn’t be put at risk.”
Deogracias Ejonga said the virus can easily spread through prisons because it is hard to track positive cases.
People are scared to report COVID-19 symptoms, Deogracias Ejonga said.
“I don’t blame them,” he said. “Why should they report if they’ll get sent into isolation?”
William Joice, 67, said the relatively accepting atmosphere at the reformatory helps prisoners improve their lives.
“I came from another facility to here,” Joice said. “It was night and day. At the other prison, if I wanted to even talk to somebody of a different race, I would have to get permission, and they would have to get permission before that could happen. Here at Monroe, I can sit and eat with anybody I want.”
Joice, a former Snohomish County deputy prosecutor, is in prison for attempted murder. He has been incarcerated for 11 years, and has 14 more left behind bars. The incarcerated man has been able to better himself at the reformatory, he said, thanks to its proximity to the I-5 corridor.
“This place is unique in the amount of rehabilitative programs that are available — both the quality and quantity of programs,” Joice said. “I don’t believe those things can be duplicated elsewhere, particularly because they depend so much on people who live in the Puget Sound area.”
One of those programs is University Beyond Bars, a nonprofit organization that allows prisoners to pursue post-secondary degrees and certificates free of charge.
Right now, Monroe is home to the only prison in the state where the program is offered.
“I’ve seen the changes in so many of these men here, in the look on their faces when they actually receive degrees,” Joice said. “When they were living outside, that wasn’t a possibility for them. It wasn’t even a dream.”
University Beyond Bars was founded in 2003 by a group of volunteers and incarcerated people in the Black Prisoners’ Caucus at the Washington State Reformatory. On average, the program enrolls roughly 300 students every quarter.
Tomas Keen, 32, is one of those students. He said the program has “definitely been the catalyst to my rehabilitation.”
“The program has helped me return to the good person I once was. I’ve mended relationships with my family,” Keen wrote in an email. “I’ve gained skills that will help me start a career after my release. And I’ve grown into someone that others can rely on: In the prison community, I’m known as someone always willing to help with homework, legal issues, and any number of other things.“
Last month in a meeting, state Corrections officials assured family members of prisoners that the education program would not disappear. But the impending closure leaves the nonprofit’s leaders uncertain of what the future holds.
Joel Strom has been executive director of University Beyond Bars since 2018. He said the organization is trying to figure out how to provide support to students leaving Monroe.
Right now, the program relies on the Monroe prison’s proximity to Seattle — a hub of education and volunteer help.
“People are being transferred away from their networks of support,” Strom said. “It is a tremendous loss.”
Strom said he often hears people say prisoners do not deserve the same opportunities as others. But those critics are focused solely on punishment, Strom argued.
“The question one should be asking is what makes our community safe? What reduces harm in our communities?” Strom said. “That’s why we have a criminal-legal system in the first place. An investment in education is a cost-saving measure. For folks that have degrees, recidivism rates drop exponentially.”
Every dollar invested in post-secondary prison education resulted in $19.74 savings for taxpayers over a three-year period, according to a 2019 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
In Washington state, 95% of incarcerated people will eventually re-enter the community.
Strom favors prison reform, but he said the issue is not black and white.
”As we try to scale down our prison population, and ultimately close facilities,” he said, “we want to do so in a way that doesn’t adversely impact the population as a whole.”
Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @reporterellen