Another housing unit at Monroe prison targeted for closure

A corrections leader says 502 workers could lose their jobs if they aren’t vaccinated against COVID by Monday.

OLYMPIA — State corrections officials said Friday that a third living unit at the Washington State Reformatory will be closed in the next few days.

When a fourth and final housing unit in the 111-year-old correctional facility will be shuttered was not disclosed. Department of Corrections leaders have previously said it could happen by the end of the month.

Secretary of Corrections Cheryl Strange, speaking on a call with reporters, said the closure is part of a broad agency response to an increasing number of empty prison beds, staffing shortages and pressure to shave operating costs.

The statewide prison population was 12,659 on Friday, the lowest total in decades. There are 17,000 beds in Washington’s prison system.

Meanwhile, as many as 502 Department of Corrections employees across the state face termination if they do not provide proof they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or obtained an accommodation by Monday, the deadline under the mandate issued by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Those employees are getting separation letters, the start of the termination process. But those letters can be rescinded if employees comply by the deadline. Strange said she expects a number of employees to do so and expressed confidence there will not be problems Monday.

“At this point we are planning for normal operations,” she said.

Overall, 91% of corrections employees have turned in vaccination cards and another 3% are getting accommodated through some form of leave, such as paid family leave or military leave, she said. This applies to workers in all divisions of the agency.

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, whose legislative district includes the Monroe Correctional Complex, said Friday that she does not share the secretary’s confidence that Monday will go smoothly.

“I am concerned about it,” she said. “The biggest injustice is that the guards are being forced to be vaccinated but the prisoners and the visitors are not. I think (the guards) are going to be quitting.”

The process of closing the reformatory, one of five facilities in the Monroe complex, began in July with consolidation of Units C and D, which housed minimum security prisoners with longer sentences. Individuals in those units were moved to units A and B, which have smaller cells and house prisoners in medium security.

Now the state is moving prisoners into the B unit and proceeding with the “warm closure” of the A unit within the next week. A warm closure means the units will not be staffed but will still have utilities connected if they need to be reopened.

Eslick said she’s not pleased with the speed of unit closures and worries that large numbers of convicted criminals are returning to communities without adequate services for their reentry.

“I am very concerned with the infiltration of inmates into our community,” she said, adding corrections officials “still haven’t proven to me they have a good plan.”

Jerry Cornfield:; 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos

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