As part of the state Department of Corrections’ mission statement, the agency commits “to operate a safe and humane corrections system.” Yet evidence of inexcusable medical lapses continues to surface behind Washington’s prison walls.
In June, a Monroe Correctional Complex inmate died from untreated breast cancer — despite pleading for more than a year for medical help. A prison nurse discovered the inmate’s chest lump in March 2018. Yet medical staff did not perform a biopsy until that August; the doctor-ordered CT scan waited until October.
An external oncologist told the Washington Office of Corrections Ombuds that the inmate’s “life expectancy would likely have been extended” with the timely medical treatment he begged for, a new report reveals. The prisoner, identified by the Everett Herald as Kenneth Wayne Williams, 63, of Kent, repeatedly asked medical and grievance officials to get him treatment. Each time, inexcusable bureaucratic indifference and confusion resulted.
“There appears to be a general lack of knowledge amongst DOC staff as to how follow-up appointments are made,” the Ombuds report found, as well as other wrongs.
Williams’ death is sadly not unique at Monroe Correctional Complex. Just as Williams’ ordeal was discovered by prison medical staff, DOC suspended the facility’s medical director, Dr. Julia Barnett, after a series of other mistreatments and seven inmate deaths. Williams was still alive when DOC fired Barnett in April.
His name must now be added to that list of inmate casualties caused by delayed and negligent treatment. The Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee need to recognize that DOC’s medical failings at Monroe have reached a point of crisis.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, has filed a bill for the 2020 session that would forbid entrusting prison medical care to a leader without required credentials. That would have blocked the hire of Barnett, who was exempted from requirements. Another clause of Senate Bill 6063 would require uniform guidelines for when to escalate inmate medical treatment to a hospital.
Meaningful institutional reform must follow these steps. The changes needed go far beyond making DOC a stickler for job qualifications. The agency’s problems across recent years, from the Monroe deaths to repeated failures to calculate sentences correctly, demand sweeping reform.
Prison inmates live behind walls because of serious crimes; Williams died serving a seven-year sentence for domestic violence. Yet when taking the convicted into custody to protect society, the state also takes responsibility for human needs — food, clothing, shelter and health care prominent among them.
The negligence Williams received, and its place in the wider pattern of DOC mismanagement, need to be addressed publicly. The Legislature and Gov. Inslee created the independent Office of Corrections Ombuds in 2018 to add transparency to how prisons are run. Its findings must prompt officials to examine why DOC keeps failing to serve Washington adequately and carry out proper oversight of this troubled agency.