Aberdeen’s Stafford Creek Corrections Center tops list for inmate complaints

Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen
Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen Department of Corrections

A new, independent state office that investigates complaints by inmates and monitors state Department of Corrections compliance with rules regarding inmate treatment says Stafford Creek Corrections Center had the most complaints among the state’s correctional institutes in the office’s first study.

Why is unclear.

“It was very surprising to me that Stafford Creek was number one,” said Joanna Carns, director of the Office of Corrections Ombuds. “I expected Washington State Penitentiary (in Walla Walla) to be higher. They have about 2,500 inmates, Stafford Creek has 2,000. Just by size alone I was surprised they popped to the top.”

Complaints are taken in writing or by a toll-free line in each facility. The lines are not monitored, so inmates are able to speak freely about their grievances.

Carns said Stafford Creek was the first to have the complaint line installed, “but that doesn’t account for all of the difference,” she said. “We are trying to get a better understanding on why that would be.”

Stafford Creek public information officer Salina Brown said the hotline pilot project started at the facility in mid January.

With a maximum population listed at 1,936, Stafford Creek produced more than 120 of the 563 complaints received.

The second most complaints, a little more than 100, came from Monroe Correctional Complex, which holds 2,400 inmates; third was Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell with 2,468 inmates and less than 80 complaints; fourth by a few complaints was the Washington State Penitentiary with 2,439 inmates; and fifth was Airway Heights Corrections Center with about 70 complaints from 2,258 inmates.

Around 100 of the complaints came from the state’s other seven correctional facilities, which in total hold as many as 4,526 inmates.

The nature of the complaints was broken into categories, with the top three producing about 100 complaints each: medical, staff conduct and classification.

In corrections terms, classification can refer to level of incarceration – minimum, medium or maximum security. It also can mean institutional placement, said Carns, meaning which institution an inmate is sent to.

“We are in a state with some far-flung facilities,” Carns said. “If you have family on this side of the mountains and you are incarcerated on the other side, the chance of visits declines.”

Inmates also complained that they cannot contest positive drug tests, which can impact their status within a facility.

In the cover letter to the March 11 report, Carns wrote that her office “received several complaints pertaining to DOC urinalysis procedures, particularly that inmates were testing positive for substances which they had allegedly not consumed. The positive tests resulted in significant consequences for the inmates, including transfers far from family and privilege restrictions, and the inmates did not have the opportunity to request a confirmation test by an outside laboratory.”

From the information Carns’ office was able to obtain from other states, Washington is 1 of only 4 that didn’t permit confirmation tests.

“The consequences can be quite severe,” she said, relating the story of one inmate who, because of the failed test, was transferred to an institution far from his pregnant fiance.

“He was supposed to go out on work release” until the failed drug test, and was transferred four hours away from his fiance. “His fiance gave birth and he missed it due to this event.”

According to Carns, the Department of Corrections has agreed to allow inmates to request confirmation by an outside laboratory. “The new policy will ensure no inmate will be wrongfully sanctioned for a false positive,” Carns said.

The Office of Corrections Ombuds was created a year ago when the Legislature passed House Bill 1889. The office is contained with the Office of the Governor for the purpose of providing information to inmates and their families; promoting public awareness and understanding of the rights and responsibilities of inmates; identifying system issues for the governor and the Legislature; and ensuring compliance with relevant statutes, rules, and policies pertaining to corrections facilities, service and treatment of inmates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections.

The Office of Corrections Ombuds provides another layer for inmate grievance reporting. Barclay said an original three-step process is still in place, which involves an initial filing through the inmate’s place of incarceration. If an inmate is not satisfied, there are two more appeals levels. Barclay likened the process to somebody filing a court claim; if a satisfactory solution is not achieved in a lower court, that decision can be appealed to higher courts.

After filing their first Department of Corrections complaint, an inmate can now reach out directly to the independent Office of Corrections Ombuds.