OLYMPIA — With COVID-19 outbreaks springing up in Washington prisons, community advocates are again calling for corrections officials to release more inmates and improve the conditions of their facilities.
The state Department of Corrections (DOC) avoided widespread outbreaks early in the pandemic, until hundreds of people were sickened in Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in late spring and summer.
Now, outbreaks are spreading at prisons across the state, including Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane County, Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Mason County, and Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Grays Harbor County.
There were 1,449 active COVID-19 cases among prisoners as of Monday, according to DOC’s website. Last week, a male inmate at Stafford Creek died of COVID-19, the fourth coronavirus-related death of a state inmate.
In a news conference Monday hosted by the advocacy group Columbia Legal Services, community organizers called again for better conditions for inmates and a wide release of prisoners to make room for social distancing.
“Mass releases, whether through governor’s proclamations, expedited clemency or through legislative bills, particularly of medically-vulnerable people and elders, is the only way to relieve the pressures that COVID places on DOC,” said J.M. Wong, an organizer with the groups COVID-19 Mutual Aid and Free Them All WA.
The latter describes itself on its Facebook page as “a collective of people committed to the abolition of the criminal punishment system” in Washington.
“We implore the elected officials and the governor to investigate the conditions our incarcerated communities face,” Wong added later.
In the news conference, Wong contended that the agency was also using solitary confinement to punish inmates, instead of DOC’s stated purpose of using them as medical isolation to prevent further outbreaks.
Also speaking at Monday’s news conference was an inmate at Bishop Lewis Work Release Facility who said he contracted the coronavirus after sharing a sleeping space with an inmate who was positive for the virus. Family members of inmates spoke about their fears amid the pandemic.
This spring, Columbia Legal Services sued Gov. Jay Inslee in an attempt to force him to free thousands of inmates to create space for distancing amid the outbreak. The state Supreme Court in April rejected that lawsuit, though Inslee did move to release about 1,100 inmates to free up space in the prisons.
Those releases were intended for incarcerated people who were not serving sentences for violent or sexual offenses, and who were nearing the end of their sentences.
There are no current plans to release more prisoners, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email Monday.
But, “DOC is working on plans to improve the conditions in their facilities and to treat those impacted and prevent future outbreaks,” wrote Lee. “We will continue to explore ways to further address these very difficult conditions.”
In response to Monday’s news conference, a DOC spokesperson said corrections officials take “the health and safety of the incarcerated individuals in the state’s custody very seriously and the department is working hard to provide the best quality healthcare to all individuals in the state’s custody.”
DOC spokesperson Susan Biller added that the release of additional prisoners “is a decision that must be made legislatively or through executive order” but can’t be made by the agency.
Biller added that the use of solitary confinement for medical isolation is not an effort at punishment but is done to protect the safety and health of inmates amid the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Health said Monday the agency wasn’t yet ready to release guidelines on when inmates or corrections staff would be eligible to receive vaccines, which have just begun arriving in limited numbers.
DOC is in talks with state health officials “to communicate Corrections’ belief that incarcerated individuals and department staff should be prioritized,” Biller wrote. “We are currently working on our implementation plan and continue to work towards our goal of being able to have vaccinations available for as many of our staff and incarcerated as possible.”