Thursday, August 15, 2019


By David Pedersen

The Intensive Management Units here at the Washington State Penitentiary, like all buildings that house human beings in solitary confinement, are perverse places. Someone walking past who is ignorant of what happens inside them would, judging from the large sign posted outside, get the sense that these units are in many ways distinct from the general population units. This sign is a curious thing. It states : "Intensive Management Unit", and "Est.", followed by the date it opened, which eludes me at present.

The curious, and to my mind rather ominous thing about the sign is its icon. It is a key, and a rather large one. And it is quite telling, this key, for it gives one a look into the minds of those who run these units. Someone wanted that key there, thought it a good idea.

I imagine the whole process of coming up with this icon was perversely comedic. There is perhaps a string of emails in existence between some D.O.C. bureaucrat and the artist commissioned to create this icon. God, do I use the term “artist” loosely in this instance, with all apologies to Michelangelo, Waterhouse, et al. "These last two submissions of yours are not quite what we have in mind--we'd like something sinister, something that will instill in the viewer a sense of foreboding; something reminiscent of the all-seeing eye on the back of a dollar bill, perhaps..."; and, later: "These latest submissions are quite good, particularly the imagery of the boot on the neck--and the way you depict the human mind crumbling, having succumbed at last to years of psychological abuse, absolutely amazing!--but we're looking for something slightly more subtle..."; and, later still: "This key is almost perfect! Make it bigger, though. Remember, it represents a prison within a prison, and must be a particularly virile key, phallic even--this is a key that fucks people...".

Yes, walking past this sign is an ugly reminder of where one is at, and of what human beings are capable of doing to one another. I have spent a fair amount of time inside the Intensive Management Unit here at W.S.P., and I know from bitter experience what life behind those walls means for souls unfortunate enough to be subjected to it.

Locked in a single-man cell twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with the exception of handcuffed trips to a small shower stall a few times a week, and handcuffed trips to the "recreation" area, which is another glorified cell. Indeed, it is not too much bigger than a cell, and one sometimes inquires of oneself, upon arriving there--having walked in handcuffs maybe thirty paces from one's cell--"What was the point? I put down my book for THIS? Another concrete box?"

Prisoners housed in segregation units in the state of Washington, as well as all other Ninth Circuit states, are to be afforded opportunities for outdoor exercise. The standard is five hours each week.(Seems easy enough for prison administrators to meet, right?) The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled time and again that outdoor exercise must be provided to segregated inmates. In Spain v. Procunier, 600 F.2d 189(1979), the Court stated: "[T]here is such substantial agreement among the cases in this area that some form of regular outdoor exercise is extremely important to the psychological and physical well-being of inmates."(Idem, at 199)

The Court went on to state: "Underlying the Eighth Amendment is a fundamental premise that prisoners are not to be treated as less than human beings. The amendment is phrased in general terms rather than specific ones so that while the underlying principle remains constant in its essentials, the precise standards by which we measure compliance with it do not. It follows that when confronting the question whether penal confinement in all its dimensions is consistent with the constitutional rule, the Court's judgment must be informed by current and enlightened scientific opinion as to the conditions necessary to ensure good physical and mental health for prisoners."(Idem, at 200)

These words were written nearly forty years ago, and, in the decades since, numerous decisions by the Ninth Circuit court have affirmed time and again that outdoor exercise must be provided to inmates.(See Toussaint v. Hockey, 722 F.3d 1490(1984); Keenan v. Hall, 83 F.3d 1083(1996); Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122(2000); Hearns v. Terhune, 413 F.3d 1036(2005), et al.)

Yet, in 2018, prisoners housed in W.S.P.'s I.M.U. South, and Monroe Correctional Complex's I.M.U., are not afforded the opportunity to exercise outdoors, the long-term deprivation of which constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation. The D.O.C. knows as much, and, indeed, segregation units at all other prisons in Washington have outdoor exercise areas. So, what gives? The usual suspects, is what gives: financial considerations, laziness, indifference, spite...the list goes on.

While housed in I.M.U. South here at W.S.P., I challenged numerous conditions of my confinement, including the deprivation of outdoor exercise, by filing grievances and writing letters to D.O.C. headquarters. Several of the responses I received are downright absurd, and not a single one seriously addressed the issue.

In a January 12, 2015, response to a letter I'd sent him, then Deputy Director Scott Frakes stated: "In regards to your comments concerning the recreation yards...American Correctional Association(A.C.A.) standard 4-4155 states the following:

'Segregation units will have either outdoor uncovered or outdoor covered exercise areas. The minimum space requirements for outdoor exercise areas for segregation units are as follows:

Individual yard modules-180 square feet of unencumbered space...' Upon review of the recreation yards in W.S.P. I.M.U. South, each recreation yard is 182 sq. ft., which is within A.C.A. standards." 

Presumably, Mr. Frakes wrote this with a straight face. Nowhere in my letter to him had I so much as mentioned space issues, and apparently lost on Mr. Frakes was the irony in his quoting from the American Correctional Association's standards, which themselves call for outdoor exercise.

In a response I received to a grievance I'd written, one Sergeant Wilson states: "Offenders are also encouraged, in lieu of out of cell opportunities, to perform daily in-cell fitness activities..." You hear that, Ninth Circuit? Sergeant Wilson says I can simply exercise in my cell--your guys' input is no longer needed!

While these and most other responses I received tended to dance around the fact that outdoor exercise was not being provided, some of the responses actually claimed that, because there exists a small grated opening on the back wall of the "recreation" area, permitting fresh air into the concrete box, I was in fact being provided "outdoor" exercise. Indeed.

In February of 2016, almost one year after having been released from I.M.U. into the general population, I filed a Personal Restraint Petition in which I challenged, among other things, the denial of outdoor exercise while I was housed in Monroe's and W.S.P.'s Intensive Management Units. Though I was no longer being subjected to those conditions, nevertheless, the issue was not moot. According to the law, mootness is established only if "(1)it can be said with assurance that 'there is no reasonable expectation...that the alleged violation will reoccur...and(2)interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation."(County of Los Angeles v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625(1979); accord, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701(2007) )

If there exists a concrete reason to believe the violation is likely to recur, the case is not moot.(Washington v. Harper, 494 U.S. 210(1990) ) As well, short-lived legal violations that are over before they can be challenged in court are not considered moot if they are "capable of repetition, yet evading judicial review" and if there is a "reasonable likelihood" that they will happen again.(Spencer v. Kerman, 523 U.S. 1, (1998); accord, Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305(1998); Burman v. State, 50 Wash.App. 433(Div. I 1988).

I am serving a life sentence, and could at any time be placed back in I.M.U., sent there on the whim of one of these people who think large keys make for great icons. The learned jurists on Washington's Court of Appeals know as much, but they dismissed my P.R.P. all the same.

There is a phone in each "recreation" area in I.M.U. South, and I recall a conversation I had one day with my mother, shortly after having been informed by D.O.C. officials that I was in fact being provided with outdoor exercise. I said to her, "I'm sorry, mom, could you speak up a bit? I've been told I am not inside a concrete box right now, but rather outside, and I cannot hear you for the howling wind and rain." The jests we make to keep bitterness at bay.

It is not funny, though, and it could never be. As I write these words, hundreds of prisoners in Washington's Department of Corrections languish in solitary confinement with no access whatsoever to outdoor exercise. The playthings of perverse men who erect perverse signs.

David Pedersen 356650
Washington State Penitentiary
1313 North 13th Avenue
Walla Walla, WA 99362

David "Joey" Pedersen is serving Life Without Parole at Washington State Penitentiary. He works training shelter dogs for the Blue Mountain Humane Society Prison Based Shelter Program, where dogs spend several weeks or months with him and other incarcerated trainers before being adopted out to good homes. Joey has a great appreciation for nature and spends his free time writing, beadworking, and reading philosophy and great literature.


Boney Maroney said...

Well done.

Boney Maroney said...

Good writing mate and thanks.
Keep it up.

Alex G said...

This is an excellently written essay. I especially like the paragraph in which you describe the imagined emails between the artist commissioned to design the key and the prison administrators. I am always surprised that some of our most intelligent people are from the incarcerated population. You should continue to write for this site because you, and other bright minds in prison, have much to contribute to our understanding of the true nature of the society in which we live. Thanks for the essay.

Best Wishes,