Public defender Virginia Lagerstam entered the Yakima County jail on Tuesday afternoon and was troubled by what she found amid a COVID-19 outbreak that more than doubled to 40 infected inmates the past week.
As she went through a metal detector on the first floor, a jail security officer was barefaced, mask dangling around his chin. Then, when she descended into a basement courtroom for her client’s half-hour hearing, two correctional officers in attendance had no masks at all.
“These are the officers that are driving prisoners around. Their hands are everywhere,” said Lagerstam, a public defender with the county’s Department of Assigned Counsel. “This makes no sense.”
Lagerstam’s experience in the jail reflects a strong resistance among many in Yakima to wear a mask, which extends to some county officials and has persisted deep into a runaway trajectory of the coronavirus. This is likely to complicate efforts to enforce Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation — which will take effect Friday — requiring masks be worn in Yakima stores and other public spaces.
The county has emerged as one of the COVID-19 hot spots in the western United States with 6,735 cases and 132 deaths as of Wednesday.
A recent county survey indicates that some 65% of people are wearing masks when they shop, up from 35% in May. But county prosecutor Joe Brusic cautions that many residents remain skeptical of masking requirements, which they may view as “almost as a hoax” brewed by Democrats. He notes that some judges don’t wear them in courtrooms as well as some county staff.
“This is a big change in policy. We are trying to work through all this,” Brusic said. “If a county employee says I won’t wear a mask, what do you do? Do you have them investigated and prosecuted with a crime. That’s a problem.”
Jailed or imprisoned inmates are a particularly vulnerable population.
In Franklin County, a state prison called Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, 110 prisoners and 43 staff have tested positive. The outbreak prompted a motion filed Wednesday to the Washington Supreme Court seeking the appointment of an expert to investigate the situation, according to a statement released by Columbia Legal Services.
At the Yakima County jail, public defenders are concerned about the outbreak risking the health of their clients. For weeks, they say they have been advocating to improve masking and other safeguards.
The jail now has more than 420 inmates, which is down from more than 900 in the first week of March as efforts were made to create more space as COVID-19 began to pose a threat. For those who remain incarcerated in pretrial confinement, there could be a long wait for their day in court because of the much slower workings of the court system during the pandemic.
“A lot of these individuals are stuck awaiting trial. They have no choice, and they are in a very confined space, and it has to be very stressful on them knowing this (COVID-19) is creeping through the jail,” said Paul Kelley, a public defender who serves as director of the Department of Assigned Counsel.
On June 18, nearly two weeks after the state had issued a requirement that masks be worn at government and private workplaces, Yakima County implemented a mask policy for the county’s Department of Corrections. Prisoners were distributed masks and strongly encouraged to wear them. Staff also received masks, and it was “highly recommended” but not required that they wear these masks around inmates and the public, according to an email from Jeremy Welch, chief security officer for county corrections, to department employees.
That policy changed again Wednesday morning with a new email to employees from Welch, sent less than 24-hours after the hearing in which Lagerstam witnessed the unmasked correctional officers. Welch wrote that because of Inslee’s proclamation to require masking in Yakima County, “effective immediately masks are now mandatory while you’re on duty … This also includes all support staff and transport staff during the court proceedings.”
Kelley said he is hopeful that the masking requirements will help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the county jail. “You would like to say, better later than never, but you don’t know whether being late caused any of this.”
Even in the aftermath of the morning memo, compliance still appears to be a work in progress.
Kelley said Wednesday morning, as he attended hearings in a basement courtroom at the jail, two correctional officers were there without masks. Perhaps, he said, these offices had not yet seen the memo for the new requirement. Another possibility was that they could be claiming medical problems that prevent them from wearing a masks.
Opponents of mandatory masking have been calling for people who object to masks to claim medical exemptions.
Welch, in a Wednesday email to county prosecutor Brusic, noted that two security guards who attended a Tuesday hearing did claim medical concerns about masking. “We are following up on those concerns,” Welch wrote.
Brusic said he believes that Inslee’s proclamation is constitutional, and he says he is deeply disturbed by the spread of the coronavirus in the county where he was raised and has served as prosecutor for the past six years.
Inslee’s order for Yakima forbids stores from serving customers who do not have masks, and he expects state agencies will be the front-line enforcers cracking down on those who consistently do not comply.
Brusic said he is still working on how enforcement would proceed against individuals, and he stressed that he is working with prosecutors from other counties to develop such policies.
“I have never seen an issue like this,” Brusic said. “I am looking at where do we go from here.”