MONROE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, WASH. STATE — The giant, rusted, metal gate slides on its track, opening a hole in the 30-foot brick wall, and all I can think about is the temperature here in the Washington State Reformatory (WSR).
The building’s over 100 years old, with poor heating and no air conditioning, so it gets too hot to sleep in the summer and too cold to write in the winter. Before I was transferred here, I was in the notorious State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where violence and gang-culture abound. So, despite the outdated architecture, WSR was an improvement.
It’s Wednesday, the 28th of July, and it’s been a particularly hot summer — so we’ve been cooking in our old, mildewy cells. It’s early afternoon, and the sun’s already grinning down on me. As I take my first steps outside of confinement in seven years, my thoughts go back to my new friends. Weird, as I think back now, how as I stepped into freedom, my mind stayed with them — just hoping they won’t be too miserable.
“The closer I get to where I’m going, the less I’m thinking about where I just was.”the author writes
Past the ominous gate, it dawns on me that I’m not handcuffed or shackled, but I’m not free, either. Guards woke me this morning, informing me I was being transferred to the minimum security work camp next door. What they didn’t tell me was I would be walked right over, pushing a cart full of my personal property. That I would be, for a little under a minute, surrounded by the free world. Your world. My old, though soon to be my new world too.
WSR sits atop a hill in the middle of rural Monroe, among three other facilities that make up the Monroe Correctional Complex. Of all Washington state prisons, it’s the only one that harbors a genuine culture of reform and rehabilitation.
Before COVID lockdowns, positive programming not only abounded here, but was mostly facilitated by incarcerated individuals—including the University Beyond Bars (UBB), a prisoner-led organization offering associate’s and bachelor’s degrees to other prisoners. That didn’t stop the Department of Corrections from deciding to shut WSR down, though, in an effort to save money due to reduced population. Plans are already in effect to ship everyone out before the end of the year, which is why my transfer was fast-tracked.
The space between WSR and the camp is reminiscent of the parking lot of an old warehouse. Pallets and dirty metal crates are stacked and scattered about. There’s a forklift parked against one wall, and battery-operated vehicles that might be golf carts next to it. As the gate slides shut behind me, I hear traffic whooshing by somewhere in town. For the briefest of seconds, I’m tempted to believe this nightmare is finally over. That I’ll wake up tomorrow to the sound of birds chirping in a tree outside my open window, rather than metal banging on metal as barred doors open and close.
Then, I glance up at the tower in the corner of the humongous wall. There’s a guard with an assault rifle, ready to take my life if I try to go anywhere but into the neighboring prison.
I’ve been in WSR for the past four years, and I’m not even sure I want to transfer. Camps are supposed to be better—the doors don’t lock, and you’re allotted much more freedom; that’s why you must have under four years left in order to be in one—but this prison is truly unique.
Because it’s located so close to Seattle, the volunteer programs are truly progressive, and for that reason, life-changing. UBB taught me how to do grant writing and how to structure a nonprofit. I used that knowledge to create the Latino Development Organization (LDO), which operates in WSR. It offers courses in Spanish to people being deported upon release. I was part of an amazing writer’s group, hosted by published authors. There’s so much positivity to be a part of here that gang culture hardly exists anymore.
Camps don’t have this type of programming because people are forced to work, so they don’t have time for rehabilitative activities. People are leaving WSR after doing decades behind bars, and they’re genuinely succeeding at life.
I’m not sure it will ever be replicated in Washington state, but the closer I get to where I’m going, the less I’m thinking about where I just was.
“As I take my first steps outside of confinement in seven years, my thoughts go back to my new friends. Weird, as I think back now, how as I stepped into freedom, my mind stayed with them — just hoping they won’t be too miserable.”the author writes
I’m halfway across the lot, and a guard tells me to be careful not to spill my property. There’s a hill up ahead. As it turns out, it’s a downward slope, and once we hit it, I have to pull back on the cart, which seems to be in a hurry.
In camp, I’ll play a larger role in the prison-industrial complex, as caseworkers and guards attempt to convince me that all I’m good for is slave labor. Still, as the gate to my new home swings open, it occurs to me this is the next step in the direction of true freedom. I have under two years left to serve. With any luck, I’ll be in a halfway house in less than one.
So I let the cart take me where it wants to go, beginning to anticipate what comes next. I’ll do what I have to do, and then I’ll get the hell out of here. It’s unfortunate the WSR era is over for the Washington DOC, but the reality that it’s over for me means this illusion of freedom will soon be replaced by the real thing.