Death, Abuse and Torture at Washington State Pentitentiary


By the late 1970’s, conditions and mistreatment at the Washington State Penitentiary (the largest prison in the state) became so tortuous and inhumane, that the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Hoptowit v. Ray, 682 F.2d 1237 (1982), issued a judgement against the governor and other state officials.

The court found:

  • Over two years, eight prisoners and two guards were killed, and there were three prison-wide lockdowns because of the violence.
  • “There was a pattern and practice of brutality and harassment by the prison guards… [G]uard brutality was the norm. It was encouraged by peer pressure among the guards and facilitated by indifference on the part of the administration. Guard brutality included arbitrary shakedowns and theft and destruction of the private property of inmates.”
  • “[T]he medical [and mental health] services provided at the penitentiary [were] so deficient that they reflect a deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of the prisoners…”
  • The use of isolation cells was “an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, without penological justification.” The cells had closed metal doors resulting in “deprivation of nearly all fresh air and light, particularly when coupled with the guard's control over the window and the electric light, creates an extreme hazard to the physical and mental well-being of the prisoner…” and caused “inadequate access to medical care and inherent sanitary problems in these cells when the door and its window are closed.”

The Institutions Project, along with private counsel and the United States Justice Department, brought this case starting in 1979 to remedy these horrible conditions. As a result of this advocacy, the torturous isolation cells were banned, medical care improved, and violence and guard brutality drastically reduced.