Inmates in the Whatcom County Jail receive little time outside their cells.
Story and photos by Katy Cossette
Laurel Walden, an inmate at the Whatcom County Jail, hadn’t been outside for four months. Walden is from Skagit County, and worked as a massage therapist before coming to the jail.
“Even just picking up garbage would be great,” Walden said.
Inmates at the Whatcom County Jail do not get to go outdoors. Instead, they receive one hour a week in a graffiti-marked, concrete-walled recreation facility about half the size of a basketball court with eight screen windows spaced around the room.
More than half of U.S. inmates have a mental health disorder, according to a 2014 report by the American Psychological Association. The stress of incarceration can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions and cause the inmates with mental illnesses to act out, according to the association.
Bréon Williams is an inmate at the Whatcom County Jail. Williams has Intermittent Explosive Disorder, a disorder marked by sudden violent outbursts, and is unable to secure a trustee position at the jail. To make trustee, inmates must be medically cleared and free of infractions. Trustees cook meals, do janitorial work and can join work crews. For many inmates at the jail, a work crew might be their only chance to get outdoors.
Without exercise equipment, the inmates have to make creative use of their recreation time. Some men use each other as weights and some women make jump ropes out of sheets, said Alyson Batchelder-Bestle, a re-entry specialist at the jail. Spending time in the fresh air of the recreation space is often calming for inmates, she said.
“We make makeshift footballs out of toilet paper rolls and we just throw them around,” Williams said. “We put a sock over it.”
In September 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana sued Missoula County on behalf of a group of county jail inmates claim- ing unfair treatment in their access to outdoor recreation. The Missoula County Detention Center let male inmates outdoors five times a week for one hour a day, but only let female and juvenile inmates exercise in an indoor recreation room. The ACLU alleged it was case of age and gender discrimination, and violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
“When I interacted with [the plaintiffs] over a period of months, it was clear to me that their physical and mental health was deteriorating,” said Anna Conley, an adjunct professor at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at University of Montana, who worked as a staff attorney on the case.
Plaintiffs in the case testified they suffered physical and psychological damage to their health after repeatedly being denied outdoor access. They reported accounts of depression, hair loss, insomnia and panic attacks due to lack of fresh air and sunlight.
In October 2013, a federal judge found the Missoula County Detention Facility violated the constitution and ordered it to build outdoor recreation facilities for the female, juvenile and segregated prison populations.
“It’s incredibly important that prisoners be treated humanely,” Conley said. “And when they’re not treated humanely, people advocate on their behalf and ensure they are treated humanely.”
Michael Sparks, a senior investigator for the Bellingham Public Defender’s office, has been with the agency since its creation in 1982. In his 34 years with the agency, Sparks has never seen a case involving lack of outdoor recreation in the Whatcom County Jail. He said the recreation room in the jail technically counts as an open-air recreation facility, since the room has open screen windows.
To get around the challenge of providing inmates with access to the outdoors, the Sustainability in Prisons Project is bringing the outdoors to inmates. The project, a collaboration between the Evergreen State College and the Washington State Department of Corrections, provides gardening and environmental education programs in Washington state prisons.
Forest ecologist and former Evergreen faculty member Nalini Nadkarni founded a project called the Blue Room in 2013, adding to the list of programs the project provides. The Blue Room is a blue-tinted room in several prisons equipped with plants and a projector to display scenes of nature on the walls.
The room is intended for inmates in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Inmates receive one hour in this room each day, and can choose from a variety of nature videos, including the mountains, ocean or forest.
“The officers that are in the programs are noticing it’s calming people down. That’s often the reason they are in segregation: because they’re really stressed and they’re really reactive,” said Kelli Bush, the program manager at the Sustainability in Prisons Project. “The connection with nature is a much simpler way to do it than locking them down.”
That said, it would be hard to offer these programs in a jail setting because people are there for a shorter period of time, Bush said. Prisons usually conduct a six-week evaluation for mental health and violent tendencies when an inmate enters the prison. Jails don’t do this screening, so they’re often more cautious about the programs they offer, she said.
There are still ways to incorporate nature programs into jails. Jails can offer lectures about science or the environment, which can inspire inmates to further their education, she said.
“Education is the most effective way to reduce recidivism,” Bush said.
Inmates in the Snake River Correctional Facility had 26 percent fewer violent offenses after watching the nature videos, according to re- search from the clinical psychotherapist Patricia Hasbach.
The inmates at the Whatcom County Jail are still finding ways to stay close to nature.
“I actually sleep by the windows upstairs because it makes me feel better. I’m more connected to nature,” Laurel Walden said. From her window, she can see the courthouse, trees and the Bellingham skyline. “It’s not a lot, but at a certain angle it’s pretty.”