State and local police brought a large disturbance at Monroe Correctional Complex under control Wednesday evening, after a couple hundred inmates concerned about the facility’s COVID-19 outbreak threatened to set fires and possibly take corrections officers hostage.
The disturbance began in the prison’s recreation yard around 6 p.m., according to a statement from the state Department of Corrections (DOC). Fire extinguishers were set off in two housing units within the minimum-security unit, creating the appearance of smoke from the outside, the statement said.
Two inmates at the Monroe prison described the tense unfolding situation in electronic messages to The Seattle Times on Wednesday evening.
One called it “off the hook,” saying corrections officers possessed “these grenades that shoot pellets to control what the hell is going on,” apparently referring to “sting balls,” explosive devices that release small rubber projectiles. He added “I am too old for this…”
Another man said: “It’s bad over here again. People are starting to run outdoors, throw food and all.”
Washington State Patrol troopers, Monroe police and the DOC set up security around the perimeter of the prison while officials worked to bring the situation under control, Trooper Heather Axtman said.
“All measures to bring individuals into compliance were ignored including verbal directives, pepper (OC) spray and sting balls, which release light, noise, and rubber pellets,” the DOC statement said. “Because there were men who continue to ignore the directives, sting balls were then discharged into the area. The individuals then stopped the destruction of the two housing units and came into compliance.”
Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said around 9 p.m. that the situation was under control and officials were working on “getting everyone back to where they should be.” No one was injured during the incident.
The two housing units were fully evacuated, the statement said, adding that the facility is currently on restricted movement.
Eighteen inmates were placed into segregation pending an internal investigation, DOC spokeswoman Susan Biller said in an email Thursday morning. Staff from the prison maintenance department and others cleaned the living unit in the morning so the men could return there.
The DOC confirmed the incident was caused by news of the recent positive COVID-19 test results, and said an investigation into it would be completed.
The conflict unfolded on the same day inmates at the prison’s minimum-security unit were told that additional inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, DOC confirmed the first infection in the unit. Late Tuesday, the agency announced two additional inmates had tested positive. And Wednesday, the DOC acknowledged an additional three inmates had tested positive, for a total of six at the prison.
Late Tuesday, DOC officials at the prison had sought to placate inmates in the minimum-security unit where inmates had tested positive, bringing them burgers from McDonald’s and asking some younger and healthier inmates to move to open dorm-style rooms, while allowing older people to move to less crowded two-person cells, said Biller, confirming earlier reports by inmates and families.
The burger offering was “an effort to take the sting out of that a little bit,” Biller said. Some inmates and family members described the gesture as insulting in communications with The Seattle Times.
Inmates and families of those confined at the unit have raised alarms for weeks, saying inmates are vulnerable in the dorm-like setting where men share living and recreations spaces, making it difficult or impossible to practice social distancing recommended by public-health officials.
Nick Straley, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, on Wednesday night said the organization will file an emergency motion Thursday on behalf of the inmates with the state Supreme Court asking for immediate action to address the DOCs’ “inadequate COVID-19 response” at the Monroe prison. The group, which has filed a lawsuit seeking the release of thousands of state prison inmates out of coronavirus concerns, will request the court appoint a special master to ensure the DOC provides adequate information about the agency’s actions.
“DOC and the Governor have been warned for weeks about how COVID-19 will impact the people inside prisons and rather than release people to address the pandemic, which is the step that all objective public health experts, including the WHO, recommend, DOC and the Governor have refused to release anyone, even the most vulnerable people living behind bars. Even the Trump Administration understands the need to release people,” Straley said in an email.
Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the governor had been briefed and was told “the situation is contained without injury to incarcerated people or Monroe staff.”