Hunger Strike at the Washington State Penitentiary

Over 1,000 inmates refused meals at Washington State Penitentiary here in Walla Walla last month. The dynamics of prison-life inform the nature—and ultimate success or failure—of such protests for reform.

Andrew Schwartz, Staff Reporter

Jeffrey Owen Dorman was released this March after spending roughly 30 years bouncing between Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities. On Easter Sunday, his sister prepared a big ham. “I knew I didn’t like the food in there,” he said of Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) and other facilities he had lived in. “But I didn’t realize how much.”

One night, later in the week, he went up from the basement to retrieve some leftover ham. He took it from the refrigerator, cut off a chunk, grabbed some cottage cheese and a Coors Light.

He took his haul back down to the basement and placed it on a coffee table before him. He stared at it the spread. He thought to himself, “man, it’s so good to be back amongst the living.”

While Dorman was first enjoying his ham on Easter itself, over 1,000 inmates at Washington State Penitentiary were initiating a hunger strike, refusing to take chow hall meals, according to the “Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.” The strike, for many prisoners, would last 10 days, the U-B reported.

I wrote an article in the U-B on the deteriorating food situation at the penitentiary, and in DOC facilities statewide. This, the U-B reported, was the source of malcontent that drove the inmates to strike.

You have to eat what they give you in prison,” Dorman told me. “And prisoners don’t expect steak and eggs. You know what I’m saying? We don’t expect … beef bolognese. No one expects to be fed really well in there, but you have very little pleasures in there and food is one of them. Or it’s not one of them, but it should be and it used to be.”

“Food refusal events,” as the state Department of Corrections has called them, are one of the few peaceful recourses incarcerated people have at their disposal when trying to enact reforms or garner media attention. This strike in particular received unusually prominent regional coverage from outlets like the Seattle Times and Northwest Public Radio.

Prison hunger strikes are not always so cohesive and successful. Bob Frates, another former inmate, told me that he’s heard of faltering attempts at hunger strikes in the past (he said he never participated in one himself). He’s heard of people trying to organize them, saying “don’t go to the chow hall today,” but “then you still see everybody going.”

But mass strikes do have precedent.

In August of 1990, the U-B reported that roughly 75 percent of the medium security unit’s-then 630 inmates skipped meals over at least a two day period in protest of ”poorly prepared food.” Dorman said he participated in multiple strikes through the aughts at various DOC facilities.

“Inmate food complaints are not new,” said Dick Morgan, former WSP superintendent and Secretary of Corrections. He noted, with a wry smile, that “it’s your job as an inmate to complain about the food.”

Strikes and Cars

Dorman, the inmate of 30-plus years, said he participated in hunger strikes while in prison, and in some cases—even preceding the controversial takeover of DOC food operations by its business conglomerate, Correctional Industries — inmates protested food, often over concerns such as portion sizes. He said, when they are successful, such actions are usually planned well in advance by inmate factions, or “cars,” as they are known. These are groups of prisoners, gangs sometimes with outside affiliations, like the Sureños, the Norteños or the Aryan Brotherhood.

Not every inmate at WSP is a member of a car—Dorman and Frates said they were not—but membership is common, they said, particularly in higher custody levels such as those that participated in the strike.

According to the U-B, participating in the hunger strike were the Victor and William units, both medium security, as well as Delta, Echo, Fox and Golf, all close-custody units.

Frates, who was never housed at WSP above medium security, said he was approached one time at the Penitentiary by some “white guys” about joining a car. According to Frates, they said, “‘hey wanna join with us, learn about your own culture?’ And I was like ‘no dude I’m not about that.’”

“It’s easy to not be a part of that if you’re willing to stand up for yourself,” he continued, but qualified that in close-custody, on the other hand, “it would be a lot harder to be an individual.”

Dorman said that, in his experience, effective strikes were organized when word spread between factions and they decided as groups that “something needs to change” and “the only way we’re going to make a change is if we do something.”

Dorman could not speak to the details of the specific strike last month, because he had already been released, but he said generally speaking, strikes begin immediately after the next commissary delivery, by which many inmates receive food they have purchased: “nobody goes to chow.”

Nobody would come out of their cells at meal time to get food. For some, this means falling back on stocked-up snacks; for others, it could mean barely eating after only a day or two.

“The problem is not everybody has food stockpiled,” said Dorman. “Not everyone in there can do that.” He said “there’s people who are not eating.”

Dorman said solidarity in such actions was often solidified through “the threat of violence happening to you.”

Inmates watched to see if anybody goes to the meal, and Dorman said “if you go, there’s the possibility that you could have repercussions.”

“All the prison has to do is wait ‘em out,” he said. “They make a show of asking what the problems are and try to fix it. But they don’t ever fix it.”

The state DOC, for its part, said it sent top officials to WSP units to meet and hear out what it characterized in a letter to Penitentiary staff and the incarcerated population as “perceived and real” inmate food quality and nutritional concerns.

The U-B reported that Stephen Sinclair, Secretary of Corrections and former superintendent of WSP, said in a news release regarding the hunger strike earlier this month that “we are listening to the incarcerated men at the facility and want them to know they’re being heard.”

The state has pledged concrete corrective actions.

Degree of Civilization

Food quality in prisons has become a national concern. Last December, “The Atlantic” published a story about the “gastronomical dimension” of the criminal justice system  nationwide, saying that reports suggest “that unrelentingly horrid food is a standard feature of the punishment prisoners receive behind bars.”

Earlier just this month, the Food Poison Journal reported that there were eight confirmed cases of E.Coli in the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome, Alaska.

In 2014, the Center for Disease Control found, in a national study, that “Incarcerated persons suffer a disproportionate number of outbreak-associated foodborne illnesses” (The revised Code of Washington states that the corrections “system should punish the offender for violating the laws of the state of Washington. This punishment should generally be limited to the denial of liberty of the offender”).

As evidenced by the numerous calls on social media to “let them starve,” for many, prisoner meal quality is a low priority amidst the litany of social problems in American society.

But for others, like Loretta Rafay, a prison reform activist, whose husband is housed in Monroe Correctional Complex, “even if society hates our incarcerated loved ones, there are families of around 18,000 prisoners in this state who love these incarcerated people. It is devastating to us to watch their physical health deteriorate over a long prison sentence. Is it right for society to want us to suffer in that way?”  She quoted Dostoevsky:“the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Dick Morgan, the former WSP superintendent and Secretary of the DOC, is the grandson of a WSP staff member, the son of a WSP staff member. He has two sons working there now. He said “it is a constant struggle to educate the workforce that they”—the inmates  —“are here as punishment, not for punishment.”

Morgan said that the general public perception is that staff are running around fluffing inmates’ pillows, “leaving a mint on it every night,” that inmates “have this luxurious life behind bars.”

He said many in the public simply do not understand the severity of getting locked up. “That’s what pisses me off,” he said. “You have this perception that prison isn’t punishment enough. We’ve gotta do something more to these people.”

But, he continued “we operate prisons by rule of law. This is the United States of America. When you deny freedoms to somebody, that is profound punishment.”