OLYMPIA — More face masks and showers for inmates. Expanded coronavirus testing. Outdoor visits for prisoners, to connect with loved ones. The potential release of more prisoners to create social distancing.
An independent office that oversees Washington’s prisons is recommending corrections officials do more to ease the situation for inmates who for months have been subject to pandemic restrictions.
The report by the state Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO), released Friday, also recommends precautions to protect inmates against COVID-19. OCO’s report is part of the office’s broader ongoing review of the response by the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) to the new coronavirus.
Washington prisons — like all places where large groups of people live together — have remained in the spotlight amid the response to the virus, which can spread easily indoors.
The report comes as nearly 500 incarcerated individuals or corrections staffers have tested positive for COVID-19.
Most of those infections — 302 as of Friday — have come during an outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Franklin County.
The recommendations are geared toward improving conditions for inmates, who have lost visits from outside the prisons and have in some cases been put under restricted movement to prevent infections.
Inmates “derive value from their work, from physical activity and programming,” said Patricia David of OCO. But they have lost some of those activities as corrections officials clamp down to try to prevent outbreaks and protect vulnerable prisoners.
“And combine that with no visitations, that’s an incredible toll on a person’s mental health,” added David, a director with OCO.
Among other things, the office recommends finding ways for inmates to connect with loved ones. One idea is allowing visits at the prisons’ outdoor spaces; another is to allow some indoor visits with social distancing and protective gear like facial coverings.
The report recommends more physical activity and greater access to books, as well as more visits by mental health providers to help inmates.
To prevent outbreaks, the report suggests, among other things, more facial coverings be made available to prisoners and expanded testing for the virus.
Depending on the prison, restrictions on movement to prevent infections have meant some inmates are allowed to shower only once a week. The report recommends showers at least every other day.
“Conditions in medical isolation are often grim, depending on the facility, with symptomatic incarcerated persons allowed a shower and a new change of clothing only once every seven days; one individual reportedly went almost three weeks without a shower,” according to the report. “Persons placed in medical isolation are not allowed out of the cell for recreation or fresh air.”
In a statement, DOC spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said the agency would review the report and its recommendations.
“The Department of Corrections takes the health and safety of its incarcerated population, those in work release, those on community supervision, its staff and our communities very seriously,” Guthrie wrote in an email. “With incident command posts at all facilities and an active emergency operations center that includes trained medical personnel, we are consistently updating our protocols, training our staff and enforcing quality controls to enhance our COVID-19 response.”
With concerns about potential future outbreaks, the report also recommends that DOC assess how many inmates each correctional facility can hold with adequate distancing.
With that in hand, the report envisions more prisoners being released early to create needed space.
In early April, the state Supreme Court directed Gov. Jay Inslee and the Department of Corrections to “take all necessary steps” to protect inmates in state prisons from the pandemic.
Inslee responded by granting the release of more than 1,100 inmates — those not serving time for violent crimes and sex crimes and nearing the end of their sentences.
Almost all were released in April, within two weeks of the Supreme Court’s decision.
As of mid-July, 199 of the more than 1,100 inmates had been returned to prison for violating terms of their release, according to DOC. Most were re-incarcerated for issues like drug use, GPS violations, having unauthorized visitors in their approved residence or failing to report to their corrections officer.
That rate isn’t substantially higher than the average recidivism rate in Washington.
“Most of these will return to the community after their custody violation hearings,” said Guthrie.
One inmate who was released early committed a new felony and is being held, awaiting trial, she said.
DOC’s guidelines say that all inmates coming into their custody are tested for COVID-19 before being transported to prison. Guthrie said that none of the 199 inmates tested positive upon returning to prison.