Little Fish in the Big House

Juvenile inmates are filling adult prison cells. They have to sue just to go to school.

Jeffery Coats was 14 when he was pulled out of the ninth grade at Fairview Junior High in Silverdale to face a 20-year sentence in adult prison. After a few brief stopovers, he was sent three years ago to the remote Clallam Bay Corrections Center. There he was, and still is, housed with inmates two and three times his age. One of only a handful of inmates under 18 in the state's adult system at the time, he immediately became a target. "Some guys are hard guys," says Coats. "It was rough being in here with guys who had been down 15 or 20 years." Not long after his arrival, he says, "I got beat up pretty bad and went to the hospital outside the prison. It was a nice ambulance ride."

Normally, an offender as young as Coats would have served his time in a juvenile facility geared more toward rehabilitating those not yet fully hardened. But as part of this state's trend toward getting tough on juveniles—particularly violent juveniles—he found himself at Clallam Bay. The facility had no special programming for teens and didn't even have a high school education program, as required by the Washington Constitution. Coats, hungry for knowledge, took nearly every class the prison had to offer in order to get his GED and a prison job. But he continually pressed officials about developing a high school program so he could earn a degree. Coats didn't want to wind up just another guy released from prison without skills or a chance for success, as predicted by statistics—according to a May report by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), only one in five state prison inmates under 21 has either a high school diploma or a GED. One-third have completed ninth grade or less.

Coats' requests went nowhere. So last November, he and seven other inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the DOC, the OSPI, and various school districts around the state. Filed in Thurston County Superior Court, the lawsuit demands that the state provide a school program for all inmates under the age of 21, equivalent to that afforded non-incarcerated children. It also demands special-education programs for those under 22 and "compensatory educational services" for those over the age limits who were denied education during confinement. In part because of the suit, two state prisons are now offering high school programs—though only for inmates under 18. The Washington Corrections Center for Women started classes in April, and Clallam Bay will kick off its program in September.

"The most important thing about this lawsuit," says Coats' attorney, David Fathi of Columbia Legal Services, "is to get the services for inmates who want them and need them. We hear every day how important education is for leading a productive life. Aside from the fact that it's their right, it's a good idea for all of us who live in this society to provide an education to these people." More than half of the inmates represented by the lawsuit will be released within two years, and Fathi asks, "Do we want them to come out being able to read and write, with basic knowledge and skills, or not?" He relays the comments of one plaintiff: "All of my dreams have been crushed. School is my only chance to build new ones."

With the number of young prisoners booming, education for juvenile inmates has lately become a hot issue in DOC circles. There now are close to 90 inmates under 18 in the state system, up from only a few two years ago, and state officials project approximately 240 by next year. The increase is due to a 1997 law, HB 3900, which designates a series of crimes—first-degree robbery, first-degree rape of a child, drive-by shooting, first-degree burglary (with prior offenses), and any violent offense with a gun—as automatically warranting trial in adult court. "We have as a society long believed that young people are redeemable," says Fathi, "and the whole idea behind having a separate system is that we'll treat them differently and that they can be diverted from a life of crime and brought back to lead a law-abiding life. It's discouraging to see that philosophy abandoned and more and more juveniles written off and put in adult prison."

Adult prisons—almost completely devoid of rehabilitative services—are notoriously hard on children. In a speech before Congress a few years ago, Michael E. Saucier, then national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, noted that juveniles in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than those in juvenile facilities. "The most revealing research," he said, "is three different studies conducted over a 10-year period that show significantly higher recidivism rates for youths tried in adult courts compared to those tried in juvenile courts for the same offenses and with similar personal profiles."

Perhaps the Legislature considered some of these issues when, as part of HB 3900, it mandated that adult facilities house juveniles and adults separately and provide a comprehensive high school education program. A year earlier, the DOC had started pooling male inmates under 18 at the Washington Corrections Center at Shelton, already the most overcrowded prison in the state. But the facility was unprepared for the new regulations and the resulting busloads of youngsters showing up at its doorstep. According to Jerry Tauscher, Shelton's acting associate superintendent, who headed the prison's youthful offender program, finding a place to keep youths separate from adults wasn't easy at the squeezed facility. He says there's still crossover: "They pass adult inmates when they're being moved, but they're escorted. It's not the most ideal thing, but we're overcrowded as it is. We didn't have time to build another building. The implementation date of the legislation was immediate."

The prison neglected to set up the required education program, opting for GED classes instead. It didn't provide special-education either, though a 1991 OSPI/DOC report recommending that programs be established as soon as possible, as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, estimated that up to 40 percent of state inmates under 21 had some sort of learning disability.

Tauscher says the main reason for Shelton's noncompliance, at least recently, is that the prison couldn't get a nearby school to provide the classes. "We've been trying to contract with the local school district," he says, "but they've been unwilling to do that. They're trying to upgrade their academic level, and the school board did not want to take this on." Tauscher says the district went so far as to get the Legislature to pass a bill—SB 6600—that freed them of responsibility for providing the classes and left the matter in the hands of the DOC. "That started the talk of which district is willing to take it," he adds. And that led to Clallam Bay, where the kids were shipped in early August.

According to Kathy Kaatz, correctional program manager at Clallam Bay, the nearby Cape Flattery School District was facing layoffs and was just desperate enough to try schooling convicted felons. "They lost a levy," she explains. "The enrollment of students to the regular school was declining, and they stood to lose some teachers. If they took on this project, their student enrollment would jump by 90 people," thus allowing them to maintain funding and staffing levels.

So Clallam Bay began preparing for the arrival of the young inmates from Shelton, carving space for a separate education and living unit. Adult prisoners housed in the area were packed up and double-bunked elsewhere in the prison. The "new" space allows for seven classrooms and a special library. Young inmates will share the gym, yard, and lunch room, but are not supposed to be in any of those places at the same time as their adult neighbors. "They shouldn't see each other at gym and yard except on the other side of the fence," says Kaatz.

The education program—which the OSPI estimates will cost $1.6 million a year—begins in September. A typical day will proceed much like a typical day on the outside, except that it starts earlier: Wake-up call is at 5:30. Though the curriculum hasn't yet been fully developed, Kaatz says it will comprise "special programs" and traditional classes like math and science during the day, and anger management and chemical dependency in the evening. Reading material deemed dangerous or indecent will be banned, and you won't see too many inmate science-lab experiments. "We have to rule out things that wouldn't be allowed in the institution based on security," she says. "By and large, they are going to be held to the same standards as the regular students, except that the Cape Flattery district requires more credits for graduation for regular students."

Kaatz adds that Clallam Bay would like to offer classes for students up to 21 years of age, as demanded in Coats' lawsuit and required by law, but to do so may require a change in the legislation that keeps juveniles and adults apart. An OSPI/DOC study on the topic is due in November.

Though the recent offering of classes is a step in the right direction, it's a long way from satisfying the demands made in the lawsuit. "This is something that you almost always see in institutional reform litigation," says Fathi. "Once the lawsuit is filed, the defendants usually take some sort of corrective action. That is a positive thing, and we're happy to see that. But it's a relatively small step forward. [Those under 18 make up] a small portion of the class of people in prison under 22, and we are seeking relief for the entire class. So we're not there yet."

In fact, none of the DOC's current efforts will impact Coats, who just turned 18 and is now ineligible for the Clallam Bay program. "I don't go to classes anymore," he says. "I've got my GED. There are no more classes for me to take." Instead, he busies himself during the day working as a machine operator in a prison industry that makes office furniture. "I think anybody should be able to get a high school diploma," he says. "If you're 38, but have been in since you were 15, you should be able to get one. As for me, I don't see it happening unless we can win this lawsuit." The case is due for court in January.

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