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PLN censored for exposing racist brutality by Washington guards

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 1991.
PLN censored for exposing racist brutality by Washington guards - Seattle Times 1991

The Seattle Times

April 1, 1991, Monday, Final Edition



When I wrote two weeks ago about alleged brutality by white prison guards against black inmates at Clallam Bay Correctional Center, state prison officials labeled the inmates' claim "lies."

And when I pointed out that a co-editor of a prison newspaper said he faced 20 days in the hole for publishing his version of one alleged attack, an official told me the editor's account was "false."

What we didn't get to hear in that recent column was the prisoners' response. Of course, that's the usual catch to stories that come from behind bars: You can't exactly call up a captive felon and ask him for a comment.

Still, I have received prison documents and witness statements that may give us a more balanced view of what has gone on at the 570-bed, five-year-old medium-security facility on the Olympic Peninsula.

As I reported earlier, a black inmate, Aaron Fast, allegedly was jumped and assaulted by a group of white guards and dragged off to segregation after an interrogation session at the prison Dec. 17.
In a report in his newspaper, Prison Legal News, inmate and co-editor Paul Wright said Fast had not been involved in an earlier fight he apparently was being questioned about, and had done nothing to warrant the alleged attack.

Wright, in addition to reporting the incident in his newspaper, filed complaints on Fast's behalf with federal and state agencies, including the governor's office. He also cited other alleged incidents of guards attacking inmates.

Subsequently, state officials, seeing a draft of Wright's story, threatened him with 20 days segregation if he didn't agree to withhold the story from publication. A prison spokeswoman told me Wright agreed to the order and the matter was dropped.

Wright, in a certified letter to me (marked "open and read" by the prison staff, as Wright's mail is being monitored closely) says he never agreed to any deletions other than one unidentified sentence.

He also says - and the official record supports his claim - that he was threatened with the infraction in part because he reported the incident to outside agencies.

"If I were on the street, under this same logic I would have to be punished if I saw a rape or robbery and reported it to the police," Wright said.

When editions of his newspaper arrived at the prison in January with the disputed story intact, officials removed the entire page containing Wright's report.

In a letter of explanation requested by Wright, state prisons-division director Larry Kincheloe says the page was cut out because it posed "reasonable risk of violence and physical harm to a human being," a violation of department policy. In a second letter, he adds that distribution of the page within the prison would have been "inciteful."

The obvious inference was that if the story, which names guards, reached the prison population, it could provoke inmate retaliation.

Yet, as Wright points out, there's no greater source of information within the prison than the grapevine. And it was already ripe with names and details from the incident.

In addition, I have obtained the sworn affidavits of 14 inmates who claim to have viewed the struggle and support Wright's version.
The identical affidavits, provided to me by Patricia Arthur of Evergreen Legal Services, repeat the charge that the unresisting Fast was jumped "by eight prison guards," handcuffed and dragged in pain to segregation. None could see a reason for such force, they said.

In separate correspondence, inmates allege there have been other racial incidents at Clallam Bay.
Prisoner Leeland Jordan has written to me and to state officials citing 11 examples in recent months, from name-calling to the extending of privileges to white inmates that are not extended to blacks.

Jordan also says the Spike Lee movie "Do the Right Thing" - depicting a black uprising - was removed summarily from the prison TV channel last July. However, the movie "Driving Miss Daisy," in which the black supporting actor - chauffeur to a white woman - is referred to as "nigger," was allowed a full run.

In addition, a new round of sworn affidavits has been gathered by Evergreen attorneys from inmates who claim to have witnessed another attack of a black inmate by white guards.

This allegedly occurred Jan. 23, after a fight by two prisoners. According to individually written and signed statements by seven inmates, a prisoner named Eddie Newman was ordered to the hole, and agreed to go but told officers he didn't want to be handcuffed.

At that point, the affidavits agree, Newman was grabbed, put in a headlock, slammed into a table and knocked to the floor.

Hand-and-ankle cuffed, Newman was carried down a corridor by his feet and collar and, at one point, dropped and kneed in the head with what one inmate called "great force."

Inmates said Newman had not resisted, and that while in the segregation area, still cuffed, Newman was slammed about and strip-searched while being held on the floor.

These allegations are being looked into by the state, and Evergreen attorneys are weighing legal action. In a recent Freedom of Information request, Evergreen has asked Olympia for the personnel files of two Clallam guards and all prison training material related to cultural and racial awareness.

Paul Wright says he plans to print future articles on the subject, if allowed, and hopes officials will take action against someone other than him.
Notes Wright: "Three prisoners who were charged with custodial assault as a result of last year's riot go on trial the beginning of next month. They're charged with attacking guards."

Wright notes that when prisoners assault guards, they get charged, but when guards assault prisoners there are no charges. "No double standard here," observes Wright sarcastically.

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