A little more than a year ago, the Washington state Supreme Court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional. Yet a failure to take strong and immediate measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak could mean that many prison and jail sentences become death sentences.
Some of the most medically vulnerable people in our society are confined in prisons, jails and detention centers. Chronic diseases such asthma, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and other medical conditions such as HIV and tuberculosis that put people at heightened risk are unusually common among incarcerated people. In fact, government data indicate that 40% of prisoners and jail inmates have a chronic medical condition.
Moreover, the number of older people serving time has increased dramatically. Across the country, the number of people age 55 or older in state and federal prisons increased by 264% between 1999 and 2015. As in other states, Washington’s enactment of tough sentencing laws dramatically increased the number of middle-aged and elderly prisoners. As of January 2020, nearly 2,400 people in Washington state prisons were at least 55 years old.
Washington’s prison (and jail) population is thus quite vulnerable. Their risk of serious illness is compounded by the inadequacies of the prison health-care system, restrictions on lifesaving protections and limited capacity to engage in social distancing. Together, these circumstances mean that COVID-19 will likely have especially devastating effects on prisoners as well as Department of Corrections (DOC) staff and their families.
Unfortunately, several Washington state correctional officers have already tested positive for COVID-19. The closed and densely-populated nature of prisons almost certainly means the virus will spread quickly once inside. Prisoners in Washington report that effective cleaning materials and hand sanitizer that contains alcohol (which is necessary to kill the virus) remain unavailable. In many prisons, quarantine means lockdown in proximity with others who may be infected, restricted mobility, and an inability to access fresh air and appropriate cleaning materials.
The Washington state DOC lacks the staff, beds and equipment to address this crisis effectively. Staff shortages are likely to become especially acute in the near future as employees fall ill. Without the facilities and staff needed to respond to the crisis, many very ill prisoners will need to be transferred to nearby hospitals. This will put additional strain on medical resources in the community, and especially in rural areas.
Enhanced prevention efforts should be implemented immediately to avoid needless deaths. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer must be made available and not be treated as contraband. Soap and other effective cleaning materials such as Clorox wipes should be widely accessible at no cost. People who are or may be ill should not be held in solitary confinement. This practice would not only be inhumane but would also encourage people to attempt to hide their illness. State public-health officials should work with prison administrators to ensure that these conditions are met.
In addition, immediate steps should be taken to release the most medically vulnerable people, including pregnant women, from prison. As advocates recently argued in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, older prisoners should be released immediately. Medically vulnerable prisoners have filed a lawsuit against the governor demanding that these steps be taken.
Prisoners whose clemency petitions have been approved by the Clemency and Pardons Board, are within six months of the end of their sentence, or are in prison for a technical violation of the conditions of their supervision should also be released to community supervision. These groups mainly include people who are considered to pose little risk to the public. Their release would reduce overcrowding and facilitate social distancing among those who remain in prison.
These releases, and follow-up testing and health care, should be coordinated with state health officials in order to protect the health of all. While many people released from prison would be able to find a place to live with family or loved ones, some would not. Rapid investment in tiny-house villages and tent cities could help reduce the risk that people released from prison end up without shelter. In one California county, the sheriff is working with owners of now-empty motels to house people released from jail. Here in King County, a local nonprofit is gearing up to provide housing and intensive case management to people released from jail and prison during the crisis.
Gov. Inslee has the authority to take these steps in an emergency. COVID-19 is, undoubtedly, such an emergency. The health and safety of some of our most vulnerable community members depends on our willingness to act now.