Washington’s Department of Corrections’ history of poor management, medical and otherwise, hobbled its pandemic response from the outset. Missteps and inaction, including not enforcing that guards wear masks, endangered prisoners with nowhere to go to protect themselves.
Finally, the agency has begun to show it has learned from errors, but delays belie the important responsibility prisons have to those in custody. More must be done to ensure inmates receive adequate help to avoid a dangerous, sometimes deadly, disease.
By the time COVID-19 was found in the Monroe Correctional Complex in April, inmates had previously been subjected to a series of medical mistreatments — and seven related deaths — in the institution’s recent past. A climate of pandemic fear emerged among the inmates, and a mass disturbance broke out. Masks and hand sanitizer were distributed slowly and unevenly among inmates after an April 10 DOC memo required mandatory face coverings for all staff. Incredibly, DOC did not fully grasp the message even then that a vigorous and visible medical response was needed to keep every inmate as safe as possible.
Months into the pandemic, inmates at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center concealed COVID-19 symptoms because of how self-reporters were isolated, the Office of Corrections Ombuds said in a disturbing report in November. Reportedly, this included captivity in dirty cells after being taken to Monroe, or in Coyote Ridge “dry” isolation cells without toilets, showers or access to television. Beginning in May, an outbreak raged in the prison until September, infecting 233 inmates, 10.5% of the population, and 73 staff members. Two inmates who delayed self-reporting for days died in June, the first two deaths among Washington state prisoners in the pandemic.
Since this deplorable situation came to light, DOC has made measurable improvement. Coyote Ridge improved its isolation conditions to allay inmates’ self-reporting concerns. According to the nonprofit Marshall Project, Washington’s rate of COVID-19 infections among state inmates still ranked among the lowest nationally, as of mid-November. To date, three Washington inmates have died during the pandemic. The national toll among people incarcerated is 1,454 deaths.
Washington’s inmate infection rate — 4.61% of the prison population, by DOC’s math — is more than double the figure for all state residents. Wiring up more cells for cable television is not the deep systemic fix still needed. The incarcerated population’s buy-in only comes with consistent attention to building credibility. Signs indicate this remains a deep need. For example, DOC had to double down on its mask mandate Nov. 6 after reports that guards and other staff weren’t covering their faces consistently. They now must wear surgical masks. Additionally, inmates can be given more than the two masks they were provided.
Inmates deserve humane treatment always. But this crisis throws into bold relief the need for urgent improvement. DOC has shown it can change aspects of how it treats people. More diligent work must follow.