The first person incarcerated at a Washington prison to test positive for COVID-19 has stoked fears among other inmates and their families that the virus could rampage through crowded cell blocks.
The man is housed at the minimum-security unit at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), the Department of Corrections announced Monday. After showing symptoms of infection, he was taken to a local hospital for examination and testing, which came back positive. He was returned to MCC and placed in a single-person cell, where he will be isolated and receive appropriate treatment, the agency said.
The 119-person unit where the man lives has been placed on quarantine, and all minimum-security staff at the prison have been ordered to wear protective face masks.
Word of the confirmed infection set off fresh alarms among inmates and family members who already have been desperately pushing for additional protections or even release of vulnerable prisoners to protect them from the virus. They have been sharing their concerns on social media and with reporters, and have messaged Gov. Jay Inslee’s office with pleas for action.
On Monday afternoon, some family members of Monroe inmates picketed across the street from the facility, waving signs.
One protester, Twyla Kill, waved a sign urging Inslee and other officials to “Act Now and Save Lives!” Her husband, Terry Kill, is also in the minimum-security section of the prison, in a unit adjacent to the quarantined unit which had housed the infected person.
“They are not safe. They are absolutely exposed to this virus,” Twyla Kill said of inmates inside the prison.
Late last month, Columbia Legal Services filed a lawsuit seeking to force the emergency release of thousands of inmates, including many with existing health problems, citing coronavirus concerns. The state Supreme Court has granted the case a speedy timeline and is scheduled to hear oral arguments on April 23.
Terry Kill was among the five named plaintiffs in that lawsuit. He is serving a 53-month sentence for burglary, robbery and possession of a controlled substance and is scheduled for release in June 2021, according to a DOC spokeswoman.
In a declaration in support of the lawsuit, Kill said the prison has taken some steps to prevent or slow a COVID-19 outbreak, such as making hand sanitizer available, and stepping up cleaning, including with bleach. But he said the open, dormitory-style layout and communal gathering spaces still leave people in his unit at great risk.
“We all share the same air. There are guys coughing and sneezing and not covering their mouths in our dorm all day and night,” Terry Kill said in the declaration. He added that he works in the prison kitchen, where dozens of men stand side-by-side while serving meals or waiting in line for their food trays.
April Franklin, whose husband is in the minimum-security unit at the prison, was also outside protesting Monday. She worries about her husband, Jason Franklin, who has asthma, saying his inhaler ran out and he hasn’t received a new one for five days. When he tried to wear a T-shirt as a makeshift protective mask this week, he was told to remove it, she said.
“They’re just sitting ducks in there,” April Franklin said. Her husband is serving an 80-month sentence on charges including unlawful firearms possession and failure to register as a sex offender, and is scheduled for release in June 2022, according to the DOC.
So far, Inslee and the DOC have not announced major steps to release prisoners, as called for in the lawsuit. But in an interview on TVW last week, DOC Secretary Steve Sinclair said the agency “has a team of folks looking at policy options,” and will present a menu of possible actions to policymakers.
“The governor is very interested in this and has asked about it,” Sinclair said.
Prison medical officials have started mapping out staff and inmates who may have come into contact with the infected man at MCC, and a health-care team “will immediately complete a symptom and temperature check” of all persons in the housing unit where the man had been incarcerated, the DOC said in a news release.
Just one other DOC inmate had previously tested positive for COVID-19 — a man serving time at MCC who contracted the virus outside the prison while housed at a local medical center, according to the DOC. As of Friday, the DOC had reported eight confirmed cases of infection among staff, as well as one contractor.
As of Monday, the agency reports it has tested 166 persons housed inside prisons or in work-release facilities, with 32 test results still pending. There are 159 incarcerated people in isolation for showing possible virus symptoms, and 1,704 under quarantine because they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 or other contagious diseases.