As coronavirus cases in Washington rise ever higher, the state’s prisons are continuing to ban in-person visits for inmates.
In-person visits at the state’s 24 prisons and work-release centers have been suspended since mid-March, as the state Department of Corrections tries to forestall outbreaks in its facilities.
In early October, the Department of Corrections announced plans to resume in-person visits, calling the decision to suspend them “one of the hardest decisions made as an agency.”
Visits would resume at a future date, Corrections officials wrote, in a phased process and inmates would initially be limited to one, one-hour visit per month.
But, last week, the agency put that plan on indefinite hold.
“As we see a substantial increase in COVID-19 cases in communities across the state, the department has come to the hard decision that it is not safe to move forward toward any other phase of the Safe Start Visitation plan at this time,” Arminda Miller and Ronna Cole, prisons/health services incident commanders, wrote in a memo.
They said they would reevaluate the decision on Dec. 15, the day after Gov. Jay Inslee’s new, statewide restrictions, banning indoor dining, among other measures, are set to expire.
“To reiterate and be as transparent as possible, there is no approved or expected start date to resume in-person visitation at this time,” Miller and Cole wrote. “We know that family interaction and support is critical to the success for those in our care and are working to provide family support services as it is safe to do so.”
Since April, the Department of Corrections has been providing inmates with two free video calls per week, to keep in touch with family. Video calls for inmates are normally $7.95 for 30 minutes, through JPay, the private vendor that charges inmates for everything from email services to renting movies and buying music.
“We know these expanded services are not the same as seeing your friends and family in person and we hope the additional no-cost communications options help to alleviate concerns during this challenging time,” Corrections officials wrote to inmates.
Three inmates have died at state Corrections facilities since the pandemic began; two in June at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Franklin County and one on Saturday at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Michael Cornethan, 62, who died on Saturday, had been incarcerated since 1983, serving a life sentence on a conviction of aggravated murder.
In total, 731 people in state prisons and facilities have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and 215 of those are active cases, as of Wednesday. There are about 17,000 people incarcerated in state prisons and work-release facilities.
About half of active cases are at Washington State Penitentiary.
There are 162 inmates in isolation, meaning they have shown COVID-19 symptoms, and an additional 812 inmates in quarantine, meaning they have been exposed to the virus but are not showing symptoms.
An additional 324 Corrections staff have tested positive, and one correctional officer has died of COVID-19.