MONROE — To get in touch with journalist Christopher Blackwell, you need to know his ID number, 813709.
He’s one of more than 2,000 prisoners in the Monroe Correctional Complex who have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic largely in solitude.
Over the past 14 months, Blackwell hasn’t hugged his wife. He’s unsure when he will be allowed to do so again, he said in a series of interviews with a Daily Herald reporter via phone from prison. Much of his contact with the outside world has come through his bylines in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Marshall Project.
Blackwell has written personal essays asserting that the Washington State Department of Corrections “weaponized” the pandemic, using the virus to justify further restrictions on prisoners and staff when nearly 95% of prisoners in Blackwell’s unit, for example, tested positive anyway.
Until 2020, prisoners in Monroe were allowed three seven-hour visits per week with friends or family from the outside, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Rachel Ericson said in an email.
The state DOC reinstated in-person visits on Mother’s Day — with new rules. Prisoners in Monroe are now allowed a single one-hour, no-contact visit with no more than two people per month. Guards have required prisoners to stay behind a see-through barrier to ensure no contact with outsiders. Instead of playing cards or holding hands with loved ones, prisoners are walled off during visits.
In Blackwell’s eyes, the somewhat relaxed policy is more about public relations than the mental health of those behind bars. Prisons will always be places of physical isolation. But in the past year extreme, prolonged isolation has taken a toll on many incarcerated people in Monroe.
Those who tested positive for COVID-19, as well as those were thought to be exposed, were sent to quarantine cells — essentially solitary confinement, Blackwell said. This meant they were locked up for 23 hours every day. And those who weren’t in quarantine were not regularly let out of their cells, Blackwell said.
“People on the outside will say, ‘We know and feel what you’re going through,’” he said. “But people don’t. They go home to their families every night.”
Even short periods in solitary confinement can cause “severe and lasting physiological and psychological harm,” according to the Nobel Prize-winning group Physicians for Human Rights. A wealth of research has linked the poor mental health of prisoners to negative consequences while trying to reintegrate into society, such as higher recidivism rates and struggles staying employed.
“Prison is not the place for mental health care,” Blackwell said. “People go to the pill line and pick up their pills three times a day, and that’s mental health. If you say anything crazy, (corrections officers) report it and put you in solitary confinement. I don’t know anybody who’s going to get better from that.”
In-person visits are one of the few things prisoners have to look forward to.
Blackwell’s wife, Chelsea Moore, came to visit him earlier this month. It was the first time they’d been together in person since they were married in prison in September 2020. They weren’t allowed to hug or kiss at the wedding.
“I don’t know anybody in prison that feels like visits are returning,” Blackwell said. “Most people are foregoing it. I have a lot of friends with family members that live hours away. For them to drive, say, three hours, for only one hour of visitation, and not even be able to hug, is not worth it.”
Many incarcerated people have found it hard to choose just two visitors out of all their family and friends. Blackwell said he and other prisoners are frustrated to see other public institutions open up again, while Corrections keeps restrictions in the name of safety.
“If you have a guard who can work anywhere on the prison, why would you limit where prisoners can go? It’s just a punitive measure to punish us and restrict everything,” Blackwell said. “It’s also something to put on paper to make it seem like they’ve done a lot, when 90 percent of the prison already got sick.”
In December 2020, a coronavirus outbreak sickened more than 500 prisoners, according to the state DOC. Blackwell said all but nine of roughly 170 prisoners in his unit contracted the virus. Nobody at the prison has died of COVID, according to Corrections.
The Monroe prison is one of several in the state where the number of cases exploded in 2020. At Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane County, 1,675 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19, according to DOC data updated last week. Between December and February, 92% of Airway Heights prisoners tested positive for the virus.
Overall, the state had the 21st-highest known positivity rate in the country: 39.4% of prisoners, as of last week. Five states — Michigan, Kentucky, South Dakota, Arkansas and Kansas — have seen positivity rates above 60%.
Many colleges and universities, such as the University of Washington, are requiring students to get vaccinated before attending classes in person this fall. The same mandate should apply for prisoners, corrections officers and visitors, Blackwell said.
Some prisoners can’t afford regular phone and video chats. Phone calls cost $2.50 for 20 minutes, and video chats cost $8 per 30 minutes, Blackwell said. Those prices don’t factor in surcharges for adding funds onto accounts.
Incarcerated people are allowed access to “reasonably priced telephone services,” according to DOC policy No. 450.200. “Reasonably priced” isn’t defined in the policy. Washington prisoners working for the state can be paid as low as 70 cents per hour with a $55 monthly cap, according to an agency policy. So the financial burden often falls to families and loved ones.
Together, Blackwell and Moore spend hundreds of dollars every month on calls, he said. Much of that is to allow him to correspond with news editors across the country. His June 2020 story, “In Prison, Even Social Distancing Rules Get Weaponized,” appeared in The Marshall Project.
“After close to 22 years inside, I thought I had seen everything when it comes to the Department of Corrections using impossible-to-follow rules to punish prisoners,” he wrote.
Blackwell spent much of his youth in and out of juvenile detention. He’s over 15 years into a 45-year prison sentence for murder and robbery. His expected release date is 2043.
“Prisoners lose their liberty — I am serving time for robbery and a murder I committed in my early 20s, something I regret every day and know I cannot change — but we have not been sentenced to suffer or die from a virus,” he wrote in a Washington Post story in December 2020, “COVID-19 is spreading wildly in prisons like mine. We should get the vaccine early.”
Waits to talk with loved ones can be long, he said, because there are 10 phones for 170 people in his unit. One day last year, Blackwell was standing in line to use a telephone for nearly an hour. A corrections officer approached the line and ordered everybody to return to their cells because they were violating social distancing rules. Officers enforced that rule seemingly at random, he said. Some refused to wear masks and did not enforce distancing when people are walking to the dining hall or other places in the prison, Blackwell said.
“It’s maddening to live through,” Blackwell said. “It’s so hard to just suck up when somebody says they’re doing something for your safety. It’s gotten to the point where we’re essentially being bullied for our own safety.”
Last fall, prisoners wore masks until they fell apart, Blackwell said, because the prison didn’t distribute enough of them.
According to the Department of Corrections, prisoners and all staff have been required to wear masks since April 2020.
“The facility began producing some and the incarcerated individuals at Monroe Correctional Complex were provided face coverings beginning April 13, as soon as they had been able to produce enough for that unit,” wrote Corrections spokeswoman Ericson.
“Individuals who need new facial coverings are able to request them from unit staff, as they were also able to do prior to the outbreak,” she added.
The state agency did not provide the number of masks handed out to prisoners.
In the past few months, prisoners at the Monroe Correctional Complex have filed numerous medical complaints. Grievances are compiled monthly and made public by the Washington Office of the Correction Ombuds.
One prisoner’s grievance, in December, stated he was repeatedly coughing up blood. A medical appointment was cancelled for no reason, he reported, and prison officials would not tell him when he could reschedule it. Intervention by the ombuds office allowed him to reschedule.
Another prisoner reported he had “several prescribed medications and DOC consistently fails to provide them” and that he “isn’t the only one having problems like this with medications.”
Monroe prisoner Felix Sitthivong said corrections officers refused to acknowledge almost all complaints related to COVID concerns.
“The grievance system is a sham to begin with,” Sitthivong said.
Sitthivong said the arbitrary enforcement of guidelines of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “revealed and exposed a lack of leadership.”
“Not only is the DOC failing,” Sitthivong said. “They’re failing and they don’t care.”
Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; email@example.com; Twitter: @reporterellen