The Washington state Supreme Court is ordering Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Steve Sinclair to quickly take “all necessary steps” to protect inmates in state prisons from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a Friday evening ruling on an emergency motion brought on behalf of inmates by Columbia Legal Services, the court directed Inslee and Sinclair to report in writing by Monday on all steps they’re taking to shield inmates from the virus and to show their “emergency plan for implementation.”
The court’s unanimous opinion did not order immediate release of any inmates, nor did it grant a request to appoint a “special master” to help oversee the prison system’s response to the crisis.
The underlying lawsuit by Columbia Legal Services was filed late last month on behalf of five prison inmates with medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, which leave them vulnerable to serious harm or death if they become infected by the coronavirus.
Nick Allen, one of the attorneys for the inmates, said in a statement the inmates and their families “are extremely grateful that the Court has recognized the extreme urgency of this matter and that it appreciates the danger that COVID-19 presents to all people living in Washington’s prisons.” He added they would look forward to seeing how the DOC will change its practices in prisons.
In an email Friday evening, Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee wrote that the governor’s office is “reviewing the order now.”
The lawsuit seeks the release of those five inmates, plus thousands of others in state prisons and work-release facilities, arguing the lockups are too crowded and unsanitary to protect the health of vulnerable populations. Specifically, the lawsuit asks for an order forcing the state to free anyone in DOC custody who is 50 years or older, as well as anyone with serious health problems, and anyone with a scheduled release date within the next 18 months.
The state has opposed such a sweeping release, arguing it would be unsafe for inmates and the public. In court filings, DOC officials estimate the Columbia Legal Services demand would result in the release of more than 11,700 people — well over half of the 19,000 people in state custody, including 5,272 serving time for serious offenses including murder and rape.
In a legal filing earlier Friday, attorneys for the state pointed to Wednesday’s disturbance by inmates at Monroe Correctional Complex, where some men trashed living quarters and reportedly threatened to start fires as a protest against what they saw as unsafe conditions and actions by prison officials. The lawyers argued “the actions of these prisoners, even if an understandable emotional response” shows the men pose risks if released into the community.
DOC is reviewing the court order and will respond as directed on Monday, spokeswoman Susan Biller wrote in an email.
“The Department has intensely engaged in responding to COVID-19 since February 2020, and has taken significant action to mitigate risk to the incarcerated population, including working daily to develop and implement protocols and directives specifically to combat the pandemic,” Biller wrote.
“The Department’s efforts include implementing nearly all of the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines on management of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. The Department will continue its diligence and responsiveness to best protect those sentenced to its custody,” she added.
As of Friday, seven prisoners and five corrections staffers at Monroe Correctional Complex had tested positive for the virus, according to the agency’s website.
Additionally, two corrections staffers tested positive at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, as well as one staffer each at Airway Heights Corrections Center, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center and the agency’s administrative headquarters.
Three justices in the ruling Friday said they would have gone farther than the court majority and ordered release from prison of the five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote in that concurring opinion that the five petitioners “are understandably concerned and believe that the State is not doing enough to protect them.” That opinion was joined by Justices Steven Gonzalez and Raquel Montoya-Lewis.
McCloud said the plight of one inmate at Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor was particularly compelling. The woman, Shyanne Colvin, 21, is a first-time offender on preventive seizure medication, who is seven months pregnant and due for release in January 2021, but is confined in a crowded prison ward. “I believe that under these circumstances, it is unjust to delay Colvin’s release,” McCloud wrote.
Oral arguments in the underlying lawsuit remain scheduled for April 23, and will take place with remote appearances by attorneys and the justices via a video conference.