OLYMPIA — Washington officials are working to increase regular testing for workers and bring back some in-person visitation options for inmates as prisons adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a video news conference Thursday, state Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair said a work group is crafting guidelines to allow some visits with proper safety equipment and physical barriers to protect against the virus.
The idea at this point is to “have some level of no-contact visiting” said Sinclair, saying a plan is expected to be finalized soon.
“A lot of our facilities do have outdoor visitation locations, and that’s something that we will certainly consider as part of the plan,” Sinclair said later. “But truly it’s going to be about having barriers in place” during visits to make sure there is no transmission of the virus.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) is currently preparing those barriers, he said.
Thursday’s news conference comes as DOC appears for now to have moved past outbreaks at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, and earlier, at Monroe Correctional Complex.
Washington meanwhile ranks fairly low in terms of confirmed cases in its corrections system.
“We’re in the lowest one-third of state correctional systems based on the total number of COVID cases we’ve experienced to date,” Sinclair said. “And we hope to slide even farther down that curve.”
He pointed to DOC data showing few active confirmed coronavirus cases right now in its prisons. Many of those active cases are being seen in new inmates being tested by the state as they enter, he said.
DOC has confirmed 447 cases among inmates throughout the pandemic, of which 31 are active, most of them at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Two prisoners have died from the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the agency has confirmed 156 cases among corrections workers, and one death. The agency is ramping up regular testing of corrections staffers.
Currently DOC is conducting widespread testing at four prisons — and hopes to expand that to four more by the end of the month.
Thursday’s news conference comes after an August report by the state Office of Corrections Ombuds recommended the agency take further steps to help inmates who have now endured months of pandemic restrictions.
The report by the independent watchdog suggested more visits for prisoners, as well as more showers and face masks for inmates, among other things.
In response to the pandemic, the agency “ordered hundreds of televisions to ensure that all cells utilized for medical isolation, quarantine, or alternative housing, of which infrastructure allows, are given a television,” according to a copy of its response.
The agency pushed back on some parts of the Ombuds report, which stated that inmates in medical isolation were allowed a shower and a change of clothes only once per week.
But DOC said it made that decision on showers, because “that first seven day period is proven to be when individuals shed the virus most.”
DOC disputed the claim that protocol only allowed one change of clothes per week, saying it was “falsely” reported by the ombuds.
Since the start of the pandemic in March, so-called “congregate settings” where many people reside — such as nursing homes, prisons and other facilities — have been a focus because outbreaks can easily spread indoors.