The second hunger strike in a year at a Washington prison has raised concerns about continuing unrest and highlighted the fact that the Washington Department of Corrections hasn't fully complied with an executive order on healthy foods.
OLYMPIA — After years of getting cold muffins for breakfast, inmates at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center are refusing meals in protest.
Offenders at Coyote Ridge, which is in Connell, Franklin County, and houses approximately 2,065, have skipped meals out of frustration over a range of issues, primarily the quality of their food. The strike began Feb. 1 and continued through at least Monday afternoon.
It’s the second time in a year that Washington prisoners have protested over food quality, raising concerns that the unrest could continue to simmer — or escalate.
The hunger strikes have highlighted the fact that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) has not fully complied with Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2013 executive order to promote healthful food at state facilities.
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The action at Coyote Ridge — and a strike last year at Walla Walla’s Washington State Penitentiary — could also be a key early test of the state’s new state Office of Corrections Ombuds. The Legislature and Inslee authorized that position last year to provide some independent oversight of the DOC.
Joanna Carns, director of that office, has made food issues an early priority. After last year’s meal strike, her office has partnered with the DOC to survey the inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary about food.
“While it might not be immediately apparent to the outside person, food is actually a critical issue in corrections, and is one of the things that will lead inmates to riot,” Carns said.
At the request of the DOC, Inslee has included $2.78 million in his proposed new two-year state operating budget to bring back hot breakfasts to Coyote Ridge, Washington State Penitentiary and three other prisons, which all moved to cold breakfasts in recent years.
Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, and chair of the House Public Safety Committee, called that a good investment, saying, “I think we need to provide humane conditions in the prisons to avoid disruptions and guarantee human rights.”
While he acknowledged inmates’ right to protest, Kennewick Rep. Brad Klippert, the ranking Republican on that committee, took a more skeptical stance.
“I don’t think the citizens pay their taxes so that felons who have victimized fellow Washington state citizens can go there and be comfortable and happy,” Klippert said.
‘Guys are tired of this’
The DOC introduced the cold breakfasts to Coyote Ridge in August 2014 and to Washington State Penitentiary in May 2015, according to agency spokesman Jeremy Barclay.
The breakfasts — which inmates pick up the night before and take to their cells — include a muffin, protein bar, peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, cereal or oatmeal, powdered milk and juice, according to Barclay.
Cold breakfasts are less expensive because they require fewer staffers to prepare and distribute. Barclay said the cold breakfasts were designed to help inmates more quickly start their day if they have early education programs, because there is no wait for the morning food.
The Coyote Ridge protest began Feb. 1 at lunch, and the DOC has used the midday meal as a way to quantify its impact. That day, about 1,800 prisoners chose not to take lunch, according to Barclay. That number has since dwindled to about 1,150 refusals for Friday’s lunch, and about 280 refusals on Monday. No health issues have been reported as a result of the declined meals.
Inmates have been refusing breakfast and dinner, too, though they might still be getting meals at the prison commissary, or might have food they have gotten from friends or relatives.
In an interview, Michael Linear, an inmate at Coyote Ridge, said prisoners have been frustrated by a range of issues, including a lack of TVs, the condition of exercise equipment and not enough educational programs for inmates serving long sentences.
But the predominant concern was the quality and nutritional content of the food, Linear said.
“We used to get served pancakes, eggs, toasts, cartons of milk,” said Linear, 36. He described the current cold breakfasts as “malnutritious.”
“Guys are tired of this sugar, and guys have been drinking powdered milk now for years,” he said. “And they’re upset.”
Linear also echoed criticisms made by the advocacy group Prison Voice Washington contending that the DOC has disregarded Inslee’s 2013 executive order aimed at improving the nutrition for state workers and at state facilities.
Among other things, that executive order directed state agencies to provide more healthful food and drinks by the end of 2016.
The DOC, in its budget request, acknowledged that it isn’t in full compliance with the executive order. In addition to adding hot breakfasts, the request would increase the nutrition of other foods, bringing the agency into full compliance, according to the request.
To improve nutrition in the prisons in recent years, Barclay said the department has eliminated deep fryers, cut the number of fatty foods, boosted offerings of fish, whole grains and vegetables and begun using higher quality meat.
Two Democratic lawmakers who work on the legislative budget proposals said they are aware of the Coyote Ridge protest and the DOC’s budget request, but no decisions have been made yet on funding.
In response to last year’s prison protest at Washington State Penitentiary, the DOC increased staffing at the prison and made “emergency purchases to avoid a full-blown riot,” which it had not budgeted for, according to the DOC’s budget request.
The budget request would bring back hot breakfasts to Coyote Ridge and Washington State Penitentiary, as well as Airway Heights Corrections Center, Monroe Correctional Complex and Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.
“Without funding to provide traditional hot breakfast service at these five (5) locations, we run the risk of these strikes happening again and putting more individuals at risk,” according to the request.
The hot breakfast would include a piece of fruit, a cup of oatmeal, a cup of potatoes and a main dish, such as a breakfast sandwich with egg and cheese, or biscuits and gravy, according to Barclay. It would also include liquid milk.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.