Gov. Jay Inslee’s new appointee to run the state prisons needs to make urgent repairs to its shoddy medical infrastructure. New Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange might be the one to do it.
Strange arrived Monday from the Department of Social and Health Services. She must act quickly and justify Inslee’s decision to move a familiar face into this important role.
The nearly 15,000 people who live in DOC custody deserve reliable health care, which Washington has failed to provide for years. A May 10 Office of the Corrections Ombuds report found that in suicides by two state-incarcerated people in 2020, prison staff missed signs of obvious distress that, if addressed, could have prevented tragedies.
One of the people, a drug offender, had been put in close observation four times because of self-harm. But other mental-health interventions didn’t happen, and a suicide-risk assessment went missing from his file. He strangled himself with a towel in January. The next month, facility mental-health staff reviewing 46 intake screenings in one day apparently overlooked another incarcerated person’s two prior suicide attempts. That person received neither close observation nor a suicide-risk assessment. He was found hanging in his cell March 1.
These cases join a long list of health care lapses at DOC facilities. An investigation released in March found 11 imprisoned people’s cancer treatments were wrongly delayed. Two of them died. Mistaken medical treatments and seven suspicious deaths among the population of Monroe Correctional Complex sparked the April 2019 firing of the facility’s medical director. And suicides within DOC facilities were already a recognized problem after an investigation into five incarcerated people’s suicides in 2019.
Inslee tolerated these failures for far too long. People in state custody suffered for it. Previous department Secretary Steve Sinclair’s retirement May 1 puts Strange in position to turn the agency around.
Strange has a deep familiarity with state institutions in need of fix-it work. Inslee entrusted her with the top job at Western State Hospital in 2016, when the facility had been racking up safety violations for years. Federal regulators yanked Western State’s certification, costing it $53 million in funding, in June 2018. Inslee moved her to the top job at DSHS, which oversees the hospital, in 2017. For the past year, she led the agency’s oversight of combating the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. She also oversaw the state’s behavioral-health initiative to revive a long-neglected aspect of state government with construction of a new hospital and other facilities.
Washington cannot tolerate systematic indifference to incarcerated persons’ health. Strange must show that Inslee was right to tap a health-system professional — who knows DOC well from a staff job there a decade ago — to make conditions inside prison walls humane for all.