The Snohomish County Jail in Everett. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

The Snohomish County Jail in Everett. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

As omicron surges, frustrations and challenges mount in correction facilities

More than 10% of those in state prisons are infected. “We’re kind of in this Twilight Zone cycle,” one prisoner said.

EVERETT — Omicron is ripping through state corrections facilities, forcing the suspension of visitation, mounting overtime for guards and deployment of managers to the front line as staffing shortages persist.

There were 1,643 confirmed cases among those in custody Wednesday, with outbreaks of varying proportion at 11 of 12 prisons and nine of 11 work release facilities. Visitation is halted across the system until at least Feb. 3.

At Monroe Correctional Complex, the Department of Corrections declared a facility-wide outbreak Wednesday evening. Officials noted a significant increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and the incarcerated population in four of its five living units. According to a department memo, all prisoners will be tested for the virus, and a new, unspecified testing protocol will be put in place for staff.

Monroe is one of five state prisons battling a facility-wide outbreak.

“2022 has gotten off to a bumpy start with the Omicron variant,” Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange wrote last week to those in custody and on work release. “As soon as it is safe to resume activities like programming and in-person visitation, we will.”

An estimated 700 of 8,000 Department of Corrections employees are off the job due to COVID-19, agency officials said. Management and non-custody staff are stepping in to fill needs, even as corrections officers work mandatory overtime, sometimes pulling double shifts.

“The significant staffing issues facing our prisons is one that has never been experienced before,” Deputy Secretary Sean Murphy wrote to employees Jan. 14.

The situation isn’t any brighter in the Snohomish County Jail in Everett, where the number of confirmed COVID cases has nearly tripled in the past two weeks, spurring frustrations among inmates and their attorneys.

As of Wednesday, 17 inmates were known to be infected, about 4% of the incarcerated population there. That number came from a daily report sent out by the jail’s health services administrator.

In state prisons, roughly 13% of those serving time are infected. At the Monroe prison, with 195 confirmed cases in the last month, the coronavirus is literally everywhere.

In his memo announcing the facility-wide outbreak, incident commander Ken Bratten said prisoners will be grouped up in cohorts in the dayrooms and bathrooms. There will be “serial testing and/or rapid antigen testing.” And more attention will be given to using personal protective equipment, cleaning, sanitizing and social distancing.

“It is our hope by taking these measures that we can cut down on the amount of potential exposures and reduce the amount of time it will take to get back to a new normal with our operations,” he wrote.

The surge comes two months after the entire medium-security Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) was placed under quarantine due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Dozens infected with the virus were placed in medical isolation. Those in quarantine are kept in their wing and receive drastically reduced time outside.

Jacob Schmitt, a convicted robber living in TRU’s B unit, said they emerged from quarantine earlier this month. But not for long. The unit went back in for 14 days on Jan. 12. Every new positive case restarts the 14-day clock, he said.

“We’re kind of in this Twilight Zone cycle,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Families of people incarcerated in Monroe are frustrated over the conditions inside, said Kehaulani Walker, whose husband, Matthew, is serving time there.

She said he has been isolating with other people in his unit. Now he can’t talk as much with his wife or see visitors. And he doesn’t get to spend as much time outside.

When they do get to chat on the phone, Walker can hear the strain in her husband’s voice.

“It is really hard to sometimes to get out of bed, to be honest with you, because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” she said. “The stress that the Department of Corrections brings on families and the incarcerated population is unbearable sometimes.”

In a Friday letter to families, Strange, the top DOC official, noted “we will need to continue to limit programs and visitation as we redistribute staff when necessary to keep people safe.”

“We know the sudden changes carry an impact to your lives and those of your loved ones,” Strange wrote. “I do want to recognize the challenges you have faced and the role you continue to play in keeping hope and faith of those in our care and custody.”

Meanwhile, attorneys who spend time working in the Snohomish County Jail courtroom have expressed safety concerns.

Defense attorney Emily Hiskes said she has been to the jail dozens of times in the past two years to meet with clients. Security staff and employees in the visitation room are often unmasked, she said, despite a countywide directive that says anybody inside a corrections facility must wear a face covering. Everybody who enters the courthouse is also required to put on a mask.

“I think it’s incredibly hypocritical that the sheriff’s office, who runs corrections, acts like the rules don’t apply to them,” Hiskes said.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe said all corrections staff are required to wear masks inside the secure part of the jail and in areas with access to the public.

In spring 2020, more than half of the jail’s inmate population was released from custody to reduce crowding and switch inmates into single-occupancy cells. This decrease came with a temporary policy adopted by the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office to release some inmates held on nonviolent and non-sexual offenses.

On Tuesday, the jail was housing 455 inmates, a little more than half its pre-pandemic population of 800. Those behind bars currently live in single-occupancy cells.

There is no requirement for Snohomish County employees to be vaccinated, O’Keefe said in an email. The only corrections employees required to provide proof of vaccination are those who work in the jail’s medical facility.

Corrections deputies aren’t required to get tested regularly, inmate Donald Kimball said in an interview.

Kimball, 53, said inmates are upset things at the jail are getting shut down in the name of safety once again while guards “don’t take the pandemic seriously.”

He has been in the jail since November 2018, awaiting trial on two counts of first-degree assault with a deadly weapon. The Marysville man opened fire on law enforcement when they responded to a 911 call listing his address, according to charging papers. Legal delays and the pandemic have continuously pushed back his court dates.

Inmates who test positive for the virus are housed in a medical isolation unit. They spend days at a time locked up in what is essentially solitary confinement, without access to phones or other means to communicate with loved ones, Kimball said.

“They have no contact with the outside,” Kimball said. “They can’t even let their families know they’re sick.”

Even short periods in solitary confinement can cause lasting physical and psychological harm. Research has linked the poor mental health of those behind bars to negative consequences while trying to reintegrate into society, such as higher recidivism rates and struggles staying employed.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; edennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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