The Washington state prison in Monroe, with its particular history of mismanaged health care, highlights the complicated nature of managing a credible pandemic response in a distrustful population. Statewide, the Department of Corrections is responsible for more than 16,000 inmate lives and must take special precautions against both contagion and the spread of misdirected fears.

At Monroe Correctional Complex, inmates pushed back against prison health measures when testing first uncovered COVID-19 in the prisoner population. More than 2,000 inmates serve time within Monroe’s walls and previously endured a series of failures in medical care. The 2019 death of an inmate from untreated breast cancer — despite the prisoner’s repeated pleas for help — came after a series of prisoner deaths and mistreatments that led to the firing of the medical director.

Given this history, it is hardly surprising some Monroe inmates lashed out against the official response to the pandemic. The prisoners’ reactions — from rejecting cell swaps to protect vulnerable inmates to a short-lived uprising in the minimum-security unit — signal deep mistrust among the incarcerated. DOC officials must openly address the role previous failures may have in fostering a toxic culture. This facility, where 10 inmates and five staff members had confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, requires special handling. That means taking extra steps to educate the inmate population about the danger posed by anyone ignoring precautions and how the imprisoned can help improve safety for all. 

At Monroe and systemwide, DOC should act swiftly and credibly. The 153-page DOC report issued Monday under court order spells out some actions taken, including the timeline of how protections for prisoners and staff have been ramped up across weeks. The order for all within the prisons, including staff, to wear face masks will be visible reminders of the need for vigilance and keeping a safe distance. Raising awareness and fighting misinformation will be ongoing battles DOC must take seriously.

More action must also follow Monday’s announcement that 950 nonviolent offenders will be freed ahead of schedule. Those released must receive extraordinary DOC attention to accelerate safe and stable re-entry into society, including help with employment and housing. Gov. Jay Inslee should also promptly explain how his staff decided the number to release, and whether additional furloughs are under consideration. 

Columbia Legal Services’ request to release every prisoner especially at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 — including every inmate over 50 — would irresponsibly and abruptly put thousands on the street, including many violent felons. However, the nonprofit put forward several better-considered requests. These include the appointment of a special master to independently report to the state Supreme Court on how correctional response to coronavirus is going, rather than waiting for DOC to send information via agency administrators.

The long-troubled medical situation at the Monroe prison set the stage for an uprising. Welcoming a respected outside expert to evaluate pandemic response decisions would demonstrate to prisoners and the public that DOC is acting wisely.