First Statewide Suit Against Corrections Dept. Over Response To COVID-19 Outbreak

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Being one of the first areas to have encountered Covid-19, the West Coast is ahead of the rest of the country in its response and preventative efforts. Like many states the entry of nonessential personnel into state facilities have been suspended, this includes visitation, extended family visits, social outings and work release as well as volunteer services. Prisoners, being in an already socially isolating environment, depend on regular communication with friends and family on the outside for their emotional health and psychological well-being. In complete disregard of this, WADOC has placed mandatory phone restrictions on people in prison, who are now only allotted one call each day and are on lockdown for the rest of the day.

Prisoners who are showing symptoms of the virus are being transported to a select few prisons including Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, located in the remote Franklin County, and Challam Bay Corrections Center, located on the edge of the mainland on the Olympic Peninsula in Clallam County. Along with transporting prisoners who are suspected carriers of the illness, WADOC has increased their deep cleaning practices to once every few days rather than weekly.

Punitive Systems’ Failure to Adapt will Extend the Crisis

Prisons are congregate environments by design. People in prison cannot practice the appropriate level of social distancing (6 feet) needed in order to be safe and stay healthy. As a punitive system, the prisons’ focus on punishment currently outweighs its desire to rehabilitate, restore the livelihood and protect the well being of its inhabitants. This is even more blatantly clear with the conditions of the Covid Crisis. These responses fail to provide the individualized care that that people on the outside are being urged to consider by the World Health Organization as apart of their quarantine practices. Including social distancing, frequent sanitation (Washington state prisoners are not permitted to have hand sanitizer) or staying home if they’re not feeling well.

Prisoners who are feeling ill have very little access to effective medical care. Staffing is decreasing with each day that nurses and guards are detected with the virus, were in close quarters with someone who was detected or are simply fearful of the conditions of working in prison during a medical epidemic. Evenso, private companies like Corizon are known to have more of a focus on profits than providing care with dozens of lawsuits filed against them for negligence and medical malpractice. These types of privately owned medical providers are not equipped to care for the new disease and in the case of an outbreak will become overwhelmed with the number of cases and prisoners will be transferred to local hospitals for care and when they are transferred to community hospitals, the virus will continue to spread.

We are Only as Strong as Our Most Vulnerable

We cannot stop the spread of the Corona Virus without addressing mass incarceration. We must advocate for decareration as a method of protecting public health and safety. Releasing people from prison is a critical step to fighting #COVID19. Once it has the chance to enter a prison, jail or detention facility it will spread simply because of the Dept. complete inability to keep quarters properly sanitized and people far enough apart. Prisons were dangerously understaffed prior to the pandemic and with the lack of guards and nurses there is no way that any facility could handle an outbreak.

In an attempt to address this issue Columbia Legal Services has filed a lawsuit against Washington’s Department of Corrections with the Washington State Supreme Court requesting that statewide action be taken to protect people confined in prison during the pandemic. The act of imprisoning people in life threatening conditions during a viral pandemic is cruel and usual punishment. The lawsuit recommends the release of the following populations:

Source: WADOC
  1. Elderly prisoners – People in prison aged 50 years or older (estimated 27% of the prison population) whose risk for reoffending due to their age is extremely low
  2. Medically Fragile Prisoners – People in prison with illnesses or conditions that make them more susceptible
  3. Upcoming Release – People within 18 months of their release date, understanding that the soonest a vaccine would be available to the public is 18 months from now

All of these groups are low risk to reoffend and high risk for contracting and spreading the virus within their facility. It only makes sense that Gov. Inslee, use his authority to provide relief to citizens in this situation to not only substantially reduce the potential for an outbreak in the prison, but to also allow families to be reunited during this time of uncertainty. A state who wants to show their commitment to transitioning out of an over punitive mass incarceration system will respond to this crisis by decarcerating their facilities now, reuniting families and providing remaining people in prison with the remaining resources with the individualized care needed in order to stay safe and healthy throughout the crisis.

  • John Chadwick

    I can well imagine that many prisoners would have no support system to help them survive if they were released. Another approach might be to release those whose family/friends apply to have a prisoner released into their care…