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Remembering Chase Riveland – A life-long advocate for criminal justice reform

March 3, 2021

By Rachel Ericson

DOC Communications

man in suit

Former Corrections Secretary, Chase Riveland, was known for his passion for supporting the rehabilitation of offenders and advocated strongly for criminal justice reform. He supported the development of programs that were known to reduce recidivism and advocated against the death penalty, in an era when being “tough on crime” was considered the norm. (Photo provided by Mary Riveland)

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Chase Riveland, former Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, passed away on January 30, 2021. Starting shortly after the administration of adult correctional institutions transitioned from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, to its own Department, Riveland served as Secretary of the agency from 1986 to 1997.

“Chase Riveland was instrumental to many of the important shifts in the justice system in Washington State and across the nation,” said Stephen Sinclair, current Secretary of Corrections. “We will always value the contributions he has made and are deeply saddened by this loss.”

Chase was a highly respected leader in corrections. Unusual in that he began his career as a parole officer in the Wisconsin State Department of Corrections and later earned a master’s degree in social work, he became the Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections for three years prior to coming to Washington State.

The former secretary was known for his passion for supporting the rehabilitation of offenders and advocated strongly for criminal justice reform. He supported the development of programs that were known to reduce recidivism and advocated against the death penalty, in an era when being “tough on crime” was considered the norm.

When the country was enthralled with the myth that getting tough on crime made a community safer, Chase pushed back. As most corrections systems built more high security institutions, he pushed more inmates into lower custody settings and expanded community options. He openly wrote about the negative impacts of the once popular super max facilities and why they should be closed.

He is well-known across the country for his paper published in 1999 titled, Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations written for the US Department of Justice. Riveland’s paper was written in response to the cultural shift towards building prisons referred to as “Supermax”, specifically built for people considered to be the “most dangerous inmates.” These facilities, according to Riveland, were “sterile, austere, arbitrary, and ... [generally without] correctional objective”, significantly more expensive to build than traditional general population prisons and had much higher operating costs overall. The report recommended research on the effects these facilities would have on both inmates and staff, and recommended evaluation of other options agencies might use to manage these inmates more effectively.

Riveland was also vocal in his opposition of the once popular “boot camp” programs; something that many legislators believed would reduce recidivism. Riveland, a former Green Beret, understood there was no data that indicated the boot camp methods reduced recidivism and refused to enact the program even when funded by the legislature, and instead created a “work ethic camp”.

He always did his job, and when he was required to perform duties he did not agree with, he did so in the most humane and compassionate way possible, while always advocating for needed change.

“When Mr. Riveland became the secretary I was just 4 years into my career but it didn’t take long to understand the challenges Mr. Riveland was going to face,” said Rob Herzog, Assistant Secretary for Washington Corrections. “With the passing of the Sentencing Reform Act (pdf) and subsequent ‘get tough on crime’ laws, Chase had to manage significant growth in the system which ultimately tripled the incarcerated population. His leadership was instrumental in maintaining safe and humane prisons during a tenure that saw such enormous growth. His stance against privatizing any prisons in the state of Washington was significant in avoiding profit driven corrections. The field of corrections and criminal justice has lost a significant role model and leader. He will be missed.”

Nancy Campbell, a former Division Director for Community Services for Colorado Department of Corrections and former Division Director for Community Corrections Division in Washington, worked closely with Riveland for approximately 12 years, and had been close friends with him for many years.

“Perhaps Chase’s greatest gift to the field was the many highly skilled leaders he developed,” Campbell said. “He shared power easily and assumed his job was to prepare the staff who worked for him to move onto greater heights. Eight of his staff went onto head corrections systems in seven different states. Many of his staff moved to senior leadership positions in other local and state government agencies.” His mentorship not only created leadership opportunities for others, but it also helped bring Riveland’s pro-social and criminal justice reform beliefs to other areas of the country.

After his time with Corrections, Riveland went on to found a consulting business with his wife, Mary Riveland, a former director of four different state agencies, whom he had met when they were both cabinet members for Governor Gardner. They often worked together on contracts and co-authored a report on adult protective services.

In Riveland’s own words from a 2008 interview with Noemie Maxwell, “Our first responsibility is to assure that the population is as safe as we can make it for the inmates and the staff. We have to deal with a person's behavior, regardless of the reason for it, from the perspective that it may be a threat to safety and something has to be done to control it. I'm not suggesting bad things don't happen. Mistakes are made. A few people may behave poorly… In general, Washington is blessed to have pretty darned well-trained staff, good leaders, good values. We have an ethical, moral, values-based approach that is legitimate and humane.”

Washington Corrections continues to follow in the example set by Riveland, and is committed to operating a safe and humane corrections system and partner with others to transform lives for a better Washington. Riveland continues to be highly respected in the field, and to this day is credited for the cultural importance of his recommendations on reforming the criminal justice system.