Behind a yearlong investigation into WA prison health care

This Crosscut series asks readers to assess if Washington’s prison system reflects their values.

Washington inmates outside

Prisoners walk toward an exercise yard at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Aug. 31, 2015. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the prison has been overcrowded as the state Department of Corrections moves prisoners away from other prisons that have seen rising cases of the virus. Inmates have reported sleeping on the floor for lack of beds and a health system overwhelmed with requests. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Journalist Levi Pulkkinen spent this past year taking a deep look into what happens when people become sick in Washington’s prisons. A lot has been written about individuals who did not get the health care they needed, but Levi wanted to go beyond a few egregious instances at particular prisons and show what “normal” care looks like for sick prisoners, so, as he told me, “Washingtonians could decide whether they’re cool with it.”

He believes our readers would want to see the three-part series, which ran on the Crosscut website last week, so they could decide whether the prison system acting in their name represents their values. That is partly because one in five Americans has had a close relative sent to prison or been imprisoned themselves, according to some estimates. That is true for Levi — and for me. 

Read Levi Pulkkinen's series, Prison's Other Death Sentence:

“I know two other reasons Washingtonians should care. We spend a lot of money on providing health care to incarcerated people — $183 million in the past 11 months (in Washington state) — so we should know what that’s buying. And upwards of 90% of the folks who go to prison eventually come out. So this is a story about neighbors, if not our families or ourselves,” he wrote in an email to me, when I asked why he thought this story was worth focusing so much time on.

Levi says his interest in the topic of prison health care goes back to when he covered crime and courts as a daily newspaper reporter, most recently at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He sat in a courtroom nearly every Friday watching people get sentenced to prison for decades, years or even life. Some had family in the gallery shouting support as they were walked out in chains. Others had no one to send them off. Levi said the experience often felt funereal. 

“Judges would do weddings after the sentences wrapped — I think as a palate cleanser before the weekend,” he wrote.

Like many reporters, he received handwritten letters from prisoners asking for help and read lawsuits inmates filed themselves. But one case really caught his attention: a man with an easily treatable condition who never got medical help, even after begging.

“He ended up losing a part of his body because of that failure of care. I’ve wondered since what suffering was waiting for those hundreds of people I’d seen sent away,” he wrote.

Levi’s ideas of right and wrong and the people who end up in court for breaking the law aren't very different from the average American. He says some people brought for judgment are plainly evil and a lot of the rest have done terrible things. Others go to prison for punishment when what they really need is help with drug use issues, mental illness or trauma they endured in the past.

“I've seen men sentenced to death, but I've never seen someone sentenced to torture, and torture through inaction was what was being described in those scrawled letters and lawsuits,” he wrote. “I wanted to know what we were doing and figured readers would as well.”

As we went through the editing process together, these stories reminded me what an insightful and relentless journalist Levi is, bringing both humanity and skill to his coverage of a complicated issue; his explanation of why this work is important shows what a brilliant human being he is as well.

Check out Levi Pulkkinen's series, Prison's Other Death Sentence, to learn more about the health care system for people behind bars in Washington state.

This story was first published in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Want to hear more from reporters and editors like Donna Gordon Blankinship? Sign up for the newsletter, below.

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