Arrow-right Camera
News >  Spokane

A Different Definition Of Justice Critics Call State’s Prisons Chief Too Soft On Anti-Crime Measures

Chase Riveland believes in summer camp for drug dealers, weight-lifting contests for murderers and cable TV for rapists.

He opposes the spate of popular anti-crime initiatives with catchy monikers such as “Three Strikes You’re Out” and “Hard Time for Armed Crime.”

He’s against the death penalty.

Riveland - the man in charge of every prison in Washington state - says too much money is spent locking up criminals and not enough on alternatives, such as drug treatment.

That attitude hasn’t won the state corrections secretary friends among the growing contingent of lawmakers pushing anticrime platforms. They’ve turned up the heat on Riveland, trying to force him to change the way he runs state prisons.

The 52-year-old, soft-spoken administrator remains unflappable. His trademark calmness holds up under interrogation by hostile lawmakers, or when paired on talk shows with angry families of murder victims.

He smokes Kools, plays the guitar and banjo, and decorates his office with abstract, Picasso-esque paintings of his own creation. He’s also one half of a state power couple: Mary Riveland, his third wife, is director of the state Department of Ecology.

A 30-year veteran of prison systems in three states, Riveland’s peers laud him. But law and order politicians say he’s a relic of the touchy feely 1960s - a social worker more interested in making felons feel good than in punishing them for their sins.

“He calls them clients. That drives me up the wall,” says Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, R-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Corrections Committee. “These are not clients.”

Washington state prisons held 6,800 inmates when Riveland was appointed as Secretary of Corrections by former Gov. Booth Gardner in 1986. The prison population now stands at 11,100 and is growing.

Riveland earns $90,000 a year to manage a department of 6,000 employees. His two-year budget is expected to reach $1 billion by the end of the century.

He starts work as early as 6:30 a.m. and often stays well into the evening at his sixth floor office a few blocks from the Capitol.

Riveland tours the prisons as often as he can, visiting each of the state’s dozen facilities at least twice a year.

But much of his time is spent fending off legislative assaults on his department.

His many critics accuse him of coddling criminals at taxpayer expense. Inmates get free health care, cable TV, college educations, weight rooms and other luxuries that some people on the outside can’t afford, they say.

“If I could sum up the philosophy…it’s keep the prisoners happy at all costs,” says Rep. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “It’s a money is no object mentality.”

Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, says Riveland sometimes seems to resist changes suggested by lawmakers.

“It’s kind of like: ‘We know prisons, leave us alone,”’ says Hargrove, chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee. “And that doesn’t play really well around here.”

Lawmakers this session passed a measure requiring inmates to work to take classes in return for privileges such as television and extended family visits.

Life behind bars needs to be harsher, they argue.

“I don’t think you should ever go back to bread and water and being brutal,” says Ballasiotes. “But I think you should have prison be a place you don’t want to go back to.”

Riveland has no kind words for their efforts.

“While people are throwing rhetoric out, whether it’s at me or at the system, they’re really avoiding the bigger issues,” Riveland says. “Almost nothing they are proposing has anything to do with crime or violence or drugs. It’s all rhetorical stuff.”

He says making prisons grimmer places won’t make bad guys turn good.

“If you can mold human behavior by simply making things miserable for people, then I guess that’s the way we should raise our kids. And yet I think we’ve learned over the years that if we want to do good parenting we need to have an evenness in what we do.”

Prisons alone are not the answer, Riveland regularly tells anyone who will listen. He’s more fond of programs like the work ethic camp on McNeil Island, where prisoners undergo a rigorous routine of manual labor and classes in return for a reduced sentence.

He says he has reduced state prison costs by moving inmates, whenever possible, into workrelease programs or community supervision.

The corrections chief also is proud of the booming prison industries program, which employs about 5,000 inmates.

Many build furniture and other equipment for state agencies. More and more private companies also see the benefits of cheap prison labor. A dozen firms contract with prisons for everything from sewing logos onto sweatshirts to welding equipment for microbreweries.

Why has a guy so skeptical of prisons spent 30 years working in and around them?

“I think it’s genetic,” Riveland jokes. “Literally, I had a great, great, great, great, great grandfather that was the head executioner of Norway.”

It’s hard to say whether Norway’s chief axman felt any anguish as he lopped off the heads of wrongdoers. But state-sponsored executions don’t appeal to Riveland.

“I think our society should consider itself advanced enough that it doesn’t have to resort to killing people to exact justice,” he says.

Riveland doesn’t write the laws, he just carries them out. During his tenure as prisons chief two men - Westley Allen Dodd and Charles Campbell - have been put to death.

Riveland’s trek to the helm of Washington’s prisons began in his home state of Wisconsin, where he started as a probation and parole officer.

He says he didn’t get into the business to wage an ideological crusade. There simply were jobs in criminal justice when he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse in 1964 with a degree in psychology/sociology, so he applied.

A few years later, the Vietnam War was in fullswing and Riveland volunteered for duty. He served as a lieutenant in a combat unit, spending part of his time rooting out Vietcong sympathizers.

He returned to graduate school for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then went back to work in Wisconsin’s correctional system.

He earned a steady series of promotions, becoming a prison superintendent in 1980 and a state deputy administrator two years later. He was hired in 1983 to lead Colorado’s prison system, and took the job in Olympia three years later.

When confirmed by the state Senate in 1987, Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane, cast the only dissenting vote.

Even then, McCaslin says he smelled a liberal.

“I’m a great believer in boot camps, in a structured environment in prisons,” McCaslin says. “You go to our prisons and they’ve got hair hanging down to their ankles.”

Eight years later, McCaslin’s vote seems almost prophetic. Riveland’s critics in the Legislature have multiplied as more and more anti-crime crusaders see him as a barrier to the sort of justice system they want.

But even in the increasingly hostile Legislature, Riveland has his admirers.

“He’s very intelligent. I think he knows what he’s doing,” says Rep. Marlin Appelwick, D-Seattle.

Part of the problem, Appelwick suggests, could be Riveland’s gentle demeanor.

“I think if he had a harder personality, if he were more abrasive and militaristic, some of the people who pick on him would leave him alone,” Appelwick says.

His boss, Gov. Mike Lowry, can’t praise him enough.

Lowry agrees with Riveland that mere punishment is likely to make convicts more dangerous when they are let out. “I think he’s one of the outstanding corrections professionals in the country,” he says.

Many of Riveland’s peers in other states agree. They voted him the nation’s top corrections administrator in 1993.

But his philosophy runs counter to a national movement pushing longer sentences and tougher prison time.

Alabama is bringing back chain gangs and cutting back coffee for inmates to one day a week. In South Carolina, a new prisons director ordered haircuts for all the prisoners.

Riveland hopes the trend will be reversed as the cost hits home.

“I think eventually the public is going to catch on, for no other reason than the financial cost of solving the problem by incarceration alone.”