CLALLAM BAY — Five Clallam Bay Corrections Center inmates who were transported to Walla Walla State Penitentiary following a nonviolent meal strike Oct. 7-9 are suing the state Department of Corrections to gain their release from solitary confinement.
They could be transferred by next week, according to a lawyer for one of the inmates, but a lawyer who filed the lawsuit pressed Wednesday for immediate action.
The inmates also want DOC to return their personal property, restore the classification level they held at Clallam Bay, and ensure they endure no further negative impacts from DOC’s “illegal actions” as described in the lawsuit.
They also want a Thurston County Superior Court judge, where the lawsuit was filed, to rule that DOC violated their rights to due process, equal protection of the laws and constitutional guarantee against cruel punishment.
Columbia Legal Services of Seattle filed the complaint Tuesday on behalf of Clallam Bay inmates George Augustine, Kimonti Carter, Jason Roberts, Felix Sitthivong and Corey Zaharko.
Zaharko was transferred Tuesday from solitary confinement at Walla Walla, DOC spokesperson Janelle Guthrie said Wednesday in an email.
Portland, Ore. lawyer Laney Ellisor said Wednesday she represents one of the inmates.
She said her client did not participate in the strike and was singled out for transfer because he is perceived as a leader at the prison.
The inmate is “someone who works with the administration” who does not want to be identified because he does not want to be perceived as anti-DOC, Ellisor said.
At a hearing Friday at Walla Walla, Ellisor’s client and other Clallam Bay inmates were told transfer from the penitentiary was imminent.
“They were told at the hearing they would be transferred within two weeks,” Ellisor said.
“He said they were told they would be going back to Clallam Bay.”
Columbia Legal Services lawyer Nick Straley said Wednesday the inmates have already been in solitary confinement for three weeks.
“We don’t believe there is a legitimate reason for holding them, so any day that they remain in [an intensive management unit] is too long, in my perspective,” Straley said.
Corrections has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.
“We feel like they were arbitrarily punished and we haven’t seen any evidence of violent behavior or infractions that could have led to them being placed in isolation or even transferred in the first place,” Columbia Legal Services spokesperson Charlie McAteer said.
Corrections center officials defended the transfer Wednesday.
“In the months leading up to the recent food and work strike, the Department received information from multiple sources that groups advocating for the strike would punish with violence individuals who refused to participate,” Robert Herzog, secretary of DOC’s prisons division who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said in a prepared statement.
“To diffuse the situation and allow for further investigation, the Department identified 15 individuals thought to be involved in advocating for the strike and for enforcement of it through threats or intimidation, and placed those individuals in administrative segregation while the investigation continued,” he said.
“However, to protect the safety and security of our state’s prisons and individuals in our care, DOC does not publicly share specific intelligence regarding prison management decisions and specific individuals.”
Thirty-six inmates were transferred to other institutions within the state corrections system following the strike.
Fifteen were incarcerated in solitary confinement at the Walla Walla penitentiary.
The other 21 Clallam Bay inmates were placed the general populations of other institutions, Guthrie said in an earlier email.
The lawsuit’s assertions include the following:
Augustine, Carter and Sitthivong were invited by DOC administrators to a meeting to discuss the inmates’ grievances, where prison officials refused to discuss “a number of [concerns].”
As a result of that meeting, on Oct. 7, “many hundreds” of inmates did not go to the cafeteria for breakfast or engage in other activities.
The five plaintiffs and a number of other men were awakened at about 3 a.m. Oct. 9 and transported to Walla Walla.
Alleged poor conditions that led up to the strike include arbitrary group punishments and outsourcing prison responsibilities to for-profit corporations, resulting in unreliable, expensive services and meals “that are unhealthy and of very poor quality.”
Before the meal strike, prison Superintendent Jeri Boe announced that lunches will be prepared at the prison and that higher quality fruits and vegetables would be provided.
Boe, penitentiary Superintendent Donald Holbrook, and DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair are also named as defendants.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].