A coalition of civil liberties and advocacy groups is pushing Gov. Jay Inslee to release thousands of people from Washington prisons, citing fears of a potential coronavirus outbreak in a prison system already struggling to provide adequate health care.

Representatives of 14 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, and Disability Rights Washington, called for the action in a joint letter to Inslee, saying without such action, a prison stay could turn into a death sentence for vulnerable incarcerated people.

They asked Inslee to use clemency and other powers to order the release of roughly 1,900 people held in prisons who are over the age of 56 –many of whom have serious health problems — saying they pose a low public safety threat while facing the greatest risk of death from COVID-19. In addition, the groups said Inslee should release incarcerated people who are within six months of their scheduled release.

“Even in the best of times, the Department of Corrections struggles to meet the basic medical needs of people living in its facilities,” said Nick Straley, assistant deputy director of advocacy at Columbia Legal Services, in a statement. “The Department of Corrections is simply not equipped to provide the level and quality of medical care that will be required in an outbreak, and unless immediate and serious steps are taken, people will die.”

Reducing the number of people locked up would cut chances of infection, while also giving the prison system flexibility to deal with staff shortages as DOC employees are required to quarantine themselves if they show symptoms of illness, the groups argued.

The DOC has not announced any cases of COVID-19 among the state’s approximately 17,000 inmates. However, the agency disclosed that two employees tested positive, including a staffer at Monroe Correctional Complex. The prison system has temporarily canceled all family and other visitation in response. Both employees were staying at home while ill and observing a 14 day self-quarantine period.

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In an interview, Straley said exceptions to releases could be made for individuals deemed too dangerous, but he said “the vast majority of these people should be released immediately,” with preparations made for support services outside prison.

The advocacy groups also want community corrections officers to stop issuing violations to people under community supervision, saying such actions frequently send people to jail for relatively minor offenses.

Tara Lee, an Inslee spokeswoman, said the governor’s office is aware of the requests and that they “will be given due consideration with everything else.”

Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the DOC, said in an email “we understand the concerns of friends and families with chronically illnesses or elderly individuals incarcerated in our population and we have enhanced protocols in place to protect these vulnerable populations.”

But Guthrie said individual prison sentences are mandated by law and that “unless these individuals complete their sentences or otherwise meet our criteria for an Extraordinary Medical Placement, we are not able to release them into the community.”

Straley disputed that, saying the DOC could expand its use of the extraordinary medical placement program – a rarely granted option allowing seriously ill inmates who pose a low public safety risk to be released to outside medical facilities. In 2018, the latest year for which data was available, two inmates were granted such placement; an additional eight died while being considered for placement.

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Inslee could also exercise emergency powers or his clemency authority. “Any suggestion they cannot do it is simply incorrect and means they are passing the buck,” Straley said in an interview.

The advocacy groups say Inslee should direct Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair to identify all people in DOC custody who are “high risk” by Centers for Disease Control definitions, including older persons and those with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease — and provide that list to the state Clemency and Pardons Board for consideration.

The request by Washington advocacy groups mirrors a broader movement nationally to urge release of older people incarcerated in potentially hazardous conditions in prisons, jails and other detention facilities that are not equipped to provide the type of social distancing public health experts have said advised to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Earlier this week, nine immigrant detainees held at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma filed a federal lawsuit, seeking to be released. They are represented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which also joined in the letter to Inslee seeking release of people held in state prisons.

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