Families who protested conditions at a Seattle work-release facility are accusing the state Department of Corrections of retaliating by sending six men at the facility back to prison.
The six men had been housed at the Reynolds Work Release facility downtown, but had their work-release status revoked on what supporters describe as bogus infractions, after a peaceful demonstration last month by family members concerned about an outbreak of COVID-19.
Supporters of the “Reynolds Six,” including King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay and Seattle attorney and activist Nikkita Oliver, joined the families on a media call Thursday, demanding Gov. Jay Inslee immediately release the six men, saying most had been singled out as Black, Muslim or indigenous people.
“We need to right this grave wrong, right now,” Zahilay said. “It’s very easy for politicians to point at far away injustices and denounce them — we see that all the time. It’s much harder to reflect on injustices that are happening in our own backyard, and this is one of them.”
In an emailed statement, DOC spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said the department “takes very seriously any allegations of racism or racial bias” and has launched “a comprehensive internal review,” while disputing some of the claims of the families.
Ayan Adem’s brother, Liban Adem, is one of the six men who was transferred back to prison. She said her family abruptly lost contact with Liban after she and several others protested outside the work release site on May 1, wearing hijabs. “Instead of lifting these men up, DOC decided to retaliate against them,” she said. “They saw me, a Black, Muslim woman, speaking on behalf of my brother.”
Adem said her brother’s alleged offense was using a bathroom without authorization. He and other men returned to prison were further mistreated by being placed for a time in isolation cells, she and other family members said. While at Reynolds, they said, some had been threatened by guards who demanded to know if their family members had instigated the protests.
The six men, Liban Adem, Isaiah Thomas, Daniel Kibby, Abdizikar Mohammed, Anthony Sams and Zemetrious McNeal, had all been staying at the work-release facility as they neared the end of criminal sentences and prepared to return to the outside community. People housed at such sites typically are allowed to leave to work at jobs during the day, returning when their shifts are done.
Guthrie said during the May 1 demonstration that men at the facility had been told to remain in their rooms “to ensure order” and protect other residents and staff. “Five of the men did not comply with or follow the directives issued,” she said, and were given verbal notice of infractions and transported to Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. The sixth man was sent to Monroe Corrections Center “for health care reasons.”
Mohammed, the man sent to Monroe, underwent a several-weeks ordeal while extremely sick with COVID-19, said Nick Allen, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit advocacy group. At the prison, he was placed in an isolation cell for 22 days and denied books or other ways to pass the time, according to Allen, who said Mohammed vomited, had difficulty breathing, and feared he would die.
Other than being seen by a nurse a couple of times a day, Mohammed was left alone, Allen said. “He was treated as though he was less than human,” he said.
Mohammed is set to be transferred back to work release this month, according to Guthrie’s email, along with one of the other men “determined not to have been involved in the incident.”
As of Thursday, there have been seven reported cases of COVID-19 infections among people confined at the Reynolds site, along with two confirmed infections among staff there. Statewide, 64 infections have been confirmed among inmates in DOC custody, with no deaths.
Forty-one DOC staff also have had confirmed infections. One correctional officer, Berisford Anthony Morse, died last month due to COVID-19.
Citing health concerns due to crowded conditions, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the release of hundreds of inmates nearing the end of their sentences for non-violent crimes. About 950 have been released, according to DOC.
A lawsuit by Columbia Legal Services seeking to force a much broader release of as many as 11,700 incarcerated persons was rejected by the Washington State Supreme Court in late April.