Taxpayers pay for cheesecake, cell phones and rock chips

Jan 13, 2011

When the state of Washington gets sued, it’s the multi-million dollar payouts that make the headlines.

However, every year taxpayers are on the hook for thousands of dollars more in smaller property damage claims: Inmate TV sets, drowned cell phones, rock-chipped windows … even a cheesecake.

 It took two trips to the prison commissary and cost him $50.38. With that, Washington prison inmate Joe A. Williams had scrounged together the ingredients he needed:

Eighty packets of cream cheese, two bottles of strawberry jam a bottle of French Vanilla creamer, whipper mix and a few Hershey candy bars. 

Back in his cell, Williams – who’s serving 13 years for jewelry theft - painstakingly mixed the ingredients. The former professional baker then cooked his concoction in a microwave.

“It was actually a New York cheesecake,” Williams said, “A strawberry-chocolate New York cheesecake from scratch.”

But before he could serve the first slice, prison staff confiscated it. They mistakenly assumed he’d stolen the ingredients from the prison kitchen where he worked.

At first Williams was angry, then sad because the prison staff had destroyed the cake which took 24 hours to create and was done with no tools.

"Although it may seem kind of silly on the one hand that we’re simply talking about a cheesecake here,” Washington’s assistant director of prisons Dan Pacholke said. 

“But within that cheesecake you’re trying to model the kind of behaviors you want out of the offenders not only while they’re in the prison but certainly when they leave as well.”

He said you have to understand prison culture: A simple case of a confiscated cheesecake can have huge implication. If an inmate feels his property isn't being respected, trust breaks down and it can even lead to violence.

In fact, Williams says after the cheesecake was confiscated his whole cell block was angry on his behalf. He says even the white supremacists told him they had his back on this one.

Williams filed a grievance, and then a tort claim, but got nowhere. So he filed a formal lawsuit in superior court asking for $581 in damages.

Formal negotiations ensued with an assistant state attorney general - seriously.

In the end there was no riot and Williams agreed to settle his suit for $150 – yep $150 for a cheesecake.

He claims he would have dropped the case if prison staff would have just given him a photograph of the cheesecake to keep in his cell.

This case is just one example of the thousands of property damage claims filed against Washington every year. 

In the last fiscal year, Washington paid out more than $1 million on 834 property damage claims each valued at less than $100,000.

Dive into the details of these property damage claims and an interesting story emerges about who’s filing them – a lot of inmates - and what state activities cause the most damage – weed-eating for one.

The payouts range from $2 to an inmate for a lost TV cable to $5,000 for a motorcycle totaled after hitting a chunk of asphalt in the road.

Risk manager Lucy Isaki says the state only pays out on a faction of those, but the principle is simple:

“If the state damages someone’s property and the property is properly in their possession, then we have an obligation to reimburse them for the damage to the property.”

These kinds of claims aren’t going to break the state budget. But they do add up.