Mother Brown knew something was wrong.
Her son, Isaiah P. Thomas, 24, had just a few more months left at the Reynolds Work Release facility in Seattle after serving time in Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. He was excited to be coming home, she said, but then she suddenly stopped hearing from him.
It was the “worst fear for a mother,” she said. “Where’s my child at?”
Brown, who prefers the name Mother Brown, called, wrote letters, and got nowhere until community members helped her locate her son. Thomas had been sent back to the prison in Shelton, along with four other men, whom community advocates have dubbed the “Reynolds Six.”
The saga of the Reynolds Six began on May 1, after coronavirus infections inside the facility led family members of the incarcerated men to protest outside to demand safer conditions for their loved ones.
In what family members say was retaliation for the protest, five of the men were sent to the Shelton prison, including the man whose family was leading the protest. One of the men, Abdizikar Mohammed, was infected with COVID-19 and sent to Monroe Correctional Complex. There he was placed in isolation for 22 days and denied books and treatment, said Columbia Legal Services attorney Nick Allen — actions Allen said seemed like punishment for testing positive for coronavirus. All but one of the men are Black, or Black and Indigenous, and two are Muslim.
The Department of Corrections said the five sent to Shelton were given disciplinary infractions — which were all either later removed or reduced — and then sent to Shelton for not going back to their rooms.
If the goal was to silence the protest at Reynolds by putting the men and their families in more vulnerable positions, it had the opposite effect. Unlike most of the millions of incarcerated people in the U.S. whose circumstances and struggles go largely ignored, the Reynolds Six have garnered advocates who are doing everything they can to ensure that their voices aren’t lost in the system.
At a June 4 news conference, families of the men were joined by lawmakers, community organizers, attorneys and other leaders to raise public awareness of the dangers of COVID for incarcerated people and to call for the men to be returned to Reynolds or released to their families. Weeks after the press conference, four of the men were sent back to work release, and two sent home.
The Reynolds Six case is just one example of the coronavirus crisis sweeping jails and prisons across the U.S. As of Friday, nearly 49,000 cases of coronavirus were reported among incarcerated people nationwide, with nearly 550 deaths. These numbers are likely an undercount due to insufficient testing. And as of June 16, “America’s largest jailer,” the federal Bureau of Prisons, had tested only 13% of incarcerated people. Once widespread testing was done in one Ohio prison, for example, more than 70% of incarcerated people tested positive for the virus.
In Washington, 143 incarcerated people have been infected, with the vast majority from an outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, where two people have now died. Of those who have been tested, Columbia Legal Services said that 19% tested positive, a rate three times the rate of the general population.
As we increasingly look to transform our criminal legal system from the ground up, it’s critical we keep top of mind the 2.3 million people currently trapped in our “American gulag” of mass incarceration, the largest in the world. This can be hard to do, as the system itself even in the best of times is designed to make it hard to communicate with or keep track of incarcerated people or independently verify what happens within prison walls.
Coronavirus raging largely unchecked makes this even harder, as outside visits are no longer allowed in many places. This leaves a vulnerable population even more vulnerable. At the Yakima County Jail, for example, an outbreak doubled in size over the past few weeks while jail guards resisted wearing masks. Some incarcerated people who have tried to bring attention to their plight have faced solitary confinement as a consequence.
Aneelah Afzali, the executive director of MAPS-AMEN (American Muslim Empowerment Network), was one of the community leaders who stepped up to support the Reynolds Six. “The lives of these six men and their families have been devastated, all because some family members — specifically, Black Muslim women — had the audacity to call for safety inside DOC facilities in the middle of a global pandemic.”
Gov. Jay Inslee released 950 incarcerated people to reduce the incarcerated population and prevent the spread of the virus, but Columbia Legal Services is seeking a much wider release of 11,700 people. Their initial effort was rejected by the state Supreme Court in April but they filed a new motion last week to revisit the case, in light of the jump in cases and the outbreak at Coyote Ridge.
As these outbreaks increase, those on the outside must do everything possible to ensure prison sentences don’t become death sentences.
Mother Brown just wants to see her son home safe.
“The men [at Reynolds] are living in a mixed population,” she said, of people with coronavirus and people without. “It’s terrifying when we’re at home in our cozy houses ordered to stay in the house by our local officials, what’s happening to our loved ones.”