OLYMPIA — Facing pressure over how they are responding to the new coronavirus inside Washington’s correctional facilities, state officials Monday announced they would set free as many as 950 prisoners to provide more physical distance and limit any potential outbreaks behind prison walls.
To do that, Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair will grant emergency furloughs to inmates in minimum-custody settings who meet certain criteria, according to a news release from the agency.
Some prisoners will be freed through the commutation process, while others will be released through a graduated reentry program, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said.
“This will allow for increased physical distancing throughout the Department of Corrections’ system, reducing the population by up to 950 people to continue to reduce the risks to incarcerated individuals while balancing public safety concerns,“ Inslee said in a news statement.
The response comes after the state Supreme Court Friday evening ordered Inslee and Sinclair to take “all necessary steps” in order to protect inmates in state prisons from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Monday’s decision was announced at roughly the same time state officials filed a 153-page report ordered by the court to describe how they are working to keep prisoners safe from outbreaks of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
The report outlines steps the DOC has taken to limit any outbreaks of COVID-19. The agency described its efforts to follow guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to try to implement social distancing, as well as setting up isolation and quarantine units.
The state Supreme Court ruling Friday — which came after an emergency motion filed on behalf of inmates by Columbia Legal Services — required a report from the state by Monday on steps it is taking to protect prisoners and to show an “emergency plan for implementation.”
The justices’ unanimous opinion did not require the immediate release of prisoners to free up space for social distancing, nor did it grant a request to appoint a “special master” to help oversee corrections officials’ response to the outbreak.
The motion was prompted by a mass disturbance last week at Monroe Correctional Complex after fears of a COVID-19 outbreak there.
As of Monday, seven prisoners and five corrections staffers at Monroe Correctional Complex had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the agency’s website.
The original lawsuit was filed late last month on behalf of five 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.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Nick Allen of Columbia Legal Services said efforts by DOC and the governor were insufficient and that the state must “ramp up essential public health measures immediately to keep everyone in Washington’s prisons safe.”
Calls for the early release of inmates who have factors that make them especially vulnerable to the virus have been echoing across the country, with the support of some prosecutors and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Washington, Columbia and other advocacy groups had called for the release of any inmate who is 50 years or older, anyone with serious health problems and anyone with a scheduled release date within the next 18 months.