The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday swiftly rejected a lawsuit seeking to force Gov. Jay Inslee to order the release of thousands of people from Washington prisons to protect them from potential exposure to the coronavirus.
In a 5-4 decision, a court majority found the emergency petition by Columbia Legal Services had not proved the state is failing in its duties to incarcerated people.
The court’s order, signed by Chief Justice Debra Stephens, said, “on the record presented, the Petitioners have not shown the Respondents’ actions constitute deliberate indifference to the COVID-19 risk at the Department of Corrections facilities…”
The decision is not expected to affect the ongoing early release of hundreds of people from Department of Corrections (DOC) custody through commutations and other measures authorized by Inslee earlier this month, after the court ordered the governor to take “all necessary steps” to protect people in prisons from the virus. It just means the state will not be compelled to vastly increase those numbers.
Four justices, in a dissent led by Justice Steven Gonzalez, said they would have granted Columbia Legal Services’ request for a writ to compel potential further action by the DOC. While not suggesting a wholesale release of additional inmates, the dissent said the court could have continued to monitor the situation in prisons and required the state to report back in two weeks.
In a statement Thursday, Inslee said “We’re grateful for the Court’s careful review of this serious matter. The DOC will continue to take all possible measures to care for the health and safety of incarcerated persons.”
Nick Straley, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, said in a statement late Thursday, the organization was “extremely disappointed” in the decision. “All of the evidence in the court record showed that the Governor’s and the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) actions to date have been insufficient to meet public health recommendations,” he said.
The ruling came just hours after the state high court’s first-ever fully remote hearing to consider oral arguments in the lawsuit, Colvin vs. Inslee, which was filed last month.
The court’s Zoom video call Thursday morning proceeded like countless others since the coronavirus pandemic shifted workplaces into virtual settings. There were failures to unmute, people talking over one another and occasional blips of distorted audio.
But the subject matter was far weightier than the average office chat, as the court considered the lawsuit’s request to force a massive release of people from state prison facilities — a move opposed by associations representing prosecutors, counties and crime victims.
At Thursday’s hearing, Straley contended the state was operating an unconstitutional prison system amid the pandemic.
At first, though, he was not audible. “Mr. Straley, you are muted,” Stephens informed him.
Quickly fixing the issue and apologizing, Straley pointed to the video hearing itself as evidence of the dangers faced by people held in crowded state lockups.
“Your Honors, COVID-19 is so dangerous and so contagious that it is actually illegal for us to be in the same room this morning,” Straley said, yet, “my clients sleep in the same room with two, or three, or 25 other people.” When they are awake, they are crammed into day rooms, mess halls and bathrooms, and share sinks and telephones, he added.
“Overcrowding is always unpleasant. Sometimes it is unconstitutional. But in this case it can be deadly,” Straley said.
John Samson, an assistant state attorney general, defended the DOC and Inslee, saying they have already taken reasonable steps to protect people in prisons, including the ongoing early release of about 1,100 people through commutations and other measures. Those releases are focused on freeing people serving time for nonviolent crimes, whose sentences were already nearing completion.
“They have made difficult decisions on how best to protect the incarcerated population, how best to protect public safety, how best to avoid future harm to victims, and how best to protect those individuals who are released when they go to the community,” Samson said.
The lawsuit’s five named plaintiffs have underlying health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, placing them at heightened risk should they contract COVID-19. The lead plaintiff, Shyanne Colvin, 21, is pregnant and taking medication for seizures while serving out a drug conviction at Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. The lawsuit sought the release of the five plaintiffs, as well as others in state custody who are 50 or older, have serious medical problems or are within 18 months of their release date.
Samson said those demands were not reasonable, noting the outbreak inside Washington prisons has been relatively contained, with just 12 people inside the Monroe Correctional Complex minimum-security unit testing positive for the coronavirus, and no reported deaths.
He said the state continues to look for people who can safely be freed, including the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, Colvin, who has been “fast tracked” along with about 15 other pregnant inmates, for release into a “community parenting setting.”
The majority order by Stephens was joined by Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens, and Pro-Tem Justice Lisa Worswick. The dissent by Gonzalez was also signed by Justices Mary Yu, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Raquel Montoya-Lewis.