Since the COVID-19 pandemic invaded Washington state early this year, Gov. Jay Inslee has issued orders and proclamations impacting the lives of our state’s residents in many ways. The most significant have been his stay-home order and the closure of so many “nonessential” businesses.
While many of Inslee’s directives in response to the pandemic have been viewed negatively to one degree or another, you could at least say that our governor has had the safety and well-being of Washingtonians in mind.
However, there is one particularly controversial decision made during the pandemic that many of my fellow legislators and I considered too risky and at odds with the governor’s supposed goal of keeping Washington’s population safe and healthy during this difficult period. Now, our fears over this decision are being realized.
In April, Inslee authorized the early release of about 1,000 inmates from our state’s correctional facilities. The governor’s decision came after an order by the state Supreme Court to immediately take “all necessary steps” to protect inmates from the pandemic. It’s important to point out that the court’s decision didn’t order the immediate release of any inmates.
Washington’s offender recidivism rate is about 33%, so if the Department of Corrections releases offenders early, it’s expected that about one-third of those offenders would not comply with the terms of their release. It was only a matter of time until one of these early-released inmates would eventually commit another crime or, worse, attack a person.
One of these inmates who was released early from prison is Matthew Cory. According to a Q13 news story, Cory’s criminal record included multiple arrests, felony convictions and misdemeanors.
Within two weeks after his release in early May, police say Cory attacked a female hiker in her 60s on a popular trail in Everett, approaching her from behind and then choking her. Q13 reported that, according to court documents, the victim was able to loosen Cory’s grip and scream loud enough to cause her attacker to run away. Police later found Cory running through the woods, and the victim identified Cory as her attacker.
After his arrest, the news article noted that Cory told investigators he had been using methamphetamine for two weeks, hadn’t slept in a week and he didn’t remember attacking the hiker.
Without the early release of the prison inmates, Cory could not have attacked this innocent woman.
If the goal of our state Supreme Court, our governor and the DOC is to protect inmates from coronavirus, this early-release plan doesn’t make sense. The safest place to ensure offenders do not contract COVID-19 is within the confines of the correctional facilities, where DOC maintains an inventory of personal protection equipment (PPE), conducts screening procedures for offenders and staff, and uses strict social-distancing protocols.
By releasing these inmates early, our corrections system also puts them in a vulnerable position. Many have no access to housing, a job, health care or the counseling they receive in prison.
Of course, concerns about COVID-19 spreading within correctional facilities and infecting inmates and staff should be taken seriously. On May 17, a correctional officer at the Monroe prison, Berisford Morse, died from COVID-19 complications after contracting the virus while at work in late April.
Morse’s tragic death is a reminder that strong, sensible steps should be taken to minimize the risk of COVID-19 inside corrections facilities. We don’t want this terrible virus to spread among inmates and staff. But taking such steps definitely shouldn’t reduce the public’s safety.
The governor should have explored and employed other options to minimize the spread of COVID-19 among DOC inmates and staff while keeping the public safe. It’s only a matter of time until we have more incidents similar to the attack that recently occurred in Everett.