Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange outside of the Twin Rivers Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex on Wednesday in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange outside of the Twin Rivers Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex on Wednesday in Monroe. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Corrections officers, inmates frustrated and fatigued by COVID

In a visit to the Monroe prison, Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange said the response to the pandemic is keeping people safe and alive.

MONROE — In Washington state prisons, COVID is exacting a growing human toll and deepening sense of anxiety, regardless of which side of the bars you’re on.

Those in custody are frustrated and angry. They wonder each day if they will have a hot meal, a chance to shower, a few minutes outdoors or even heat in the cells. They worry a positive COVID test will land them in isolation for days and fear a botched prisoner move will bring the virus into their wing.

Corrections officers are exhausted and angry. Fatigue from 16-hour shifts is setting in, especially days spent in medical isolation units, where for their health and safety, they must wear rubber gloves, a full-length gown, a respirator and a face shield the entire time. Managers are making meals and carrying out other front-line chores.

Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange visited the Monroe prison Wednesday. It was her second time there since getting named to lead the agency in April.

“We get all kinds of emails and letters from people who are very concerned,” Strange told a Daily Herald reporter. “Family members and loved ones don’t know what’s going on … we answer a lot of questions about that. I have a special unit set up actually to answer COVID-related questions.”

The secretary said she walked through every unit in the complex, talking to staff and prisoners in each. She donned personal protective equipment to meet prisoners in isolation as a result of testing positive for the virus.

“They’re doing well,” Strange said. “They’re in good spirits. They have a lot of questions … ‘When are we out?’ ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘Why can’t I get out and spend more time in the yard?’ — things like that.”

Strange couldn’t answer their questions with certainty earlier this week, but late Thursday she announced a pause of in-person visitation had been extended into March.

While new cases are declining in many communities, omicron remains an unrelenting force within the walls of jails and prisons.

This week, the Department of Corrections reported outbreaks at 18 prison and work release facilities, including the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Across the state, 3,048 people were in medical isolation — nearly 25% of the state’s prison population — and 7,190 in quarantine.

At Monroe, 600 people in custody and 34 employees had contracted the virus in the last two weeks, according to the department. As of Jan. 27, isolation and quarantine units had been set up in four of the complex’s five facilities.

Strange said she understands those in custody are tiring of a pandemic now in its third year. To help cope and lessen the cost of communicating with loved ones, she authorized credits of $15 for their JPay accounts, which is an email service, and $10 for the commissary. Those sidelined from jobs in correctional industries due to COVID are in line for a small stipend. And the private vendor that handles inmate phone services is providing a one-time credit of 90 free minutes, according to a Jan. 28 letter to families.

Also, every one is getting a “Super Bowl goodie bag” with freeze dried coffee, fruit drink mixes, tortilla chips, sandwich crackers, cheese, beef ramen, summer sausage and jalapeno squeeze cheese.

When first told of the coming goodie bag late last month, prisoner Jacob Schmitt, housed in Monroe’s Twin Rivers Unit, emailed that most people behind bars could care less.

“Sure, we will eat it — but it hardly fixes the fact that we have all been fed: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, four cookies, sunflower seeds, and either corn or carrots every breakfast for the last week. We are supposed to receive a hot breakfast — but haven’t,” he said.

In a a follow-up, he added:

“Secretary Strange and her colleagues in headquarters can send out all of the letters they want — they’re empty words that do nothing to either repair the abuses we’ve suffered or restore the sense of human dignity that has been stripped from us,” he said.

The Monroe Correctional Complex. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Monroe Correctional Complex. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Strange said food service departments at the Monroe prison are staffed with an incarcerated workforce. Many of them have gotten sick, requiring prison officials to find employees to work in the kitchens. Sustaining adequate staff and abiding by social distancing guidelines have led to slowed meal times.

Through their union, corrections officers have called for a more aggressive approach to reduce interactions with other people. They want to schedule days when those in custody would be kept in their cells. They also want to bring back unvaccinated employees who received an exemption to the state mandate. They should be tested daily and allowed to work if they are negative — similar to what has been going on with current workers.

“Our members have consistently raised issues of inadequate staffing, poor planning, and unclear directions on how to serve the communities’ interests while carrying out the mission of the (Department of Corrections) during this recent COVID surge inside the prisons,” said Michelle Woodrow, president and executive director of Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections officers.

She notified Strange last month that they have advised employees they don’t have to go to work if they feel it’s unsafe.

“Unfortunately, the communities we all serve suffer as the DOC continues to expect our members to work longer hours, take fewer days off, and get everything done as if we’re not in the middle of a crisis,” Woodrow said. “This is not sustainable. Not for our members, not for the community, and not for the incarcerated population in our care.”

Asked about concerns raised by employees, Strange acknowledged staff are tired.

“They’ve been dealing with this for two years,” she said. “It’s a lot of overtime. It’s a lot of work.”

The secretary said she thinks the state agency has done a “really good job” through the pandemic.

Of the 12,000 confirmed cases in prisons since the start of the pandemic, 16 inmates and four prison employees have died from the virus, according to state Corrections.

“I look at the numbers from a mortality perspective,” Strange said. “I would say, actually, the Department of Corrections is doing a great job keeping people safe.”

Regarding visitation, Strange said she planned to meet with state Department of Health representatives Thursday to discuss whether it would be safe to resume in-person visits.

“I am sorry that we do not have better news for those in our custody and their families and loved ones,” she said in a memo released Thursday evening.

Other actions like pausing intake of new prisoners or releasing inmates early are not under discussion, Gov. Jay Inslee said.

“The department is doing everything it can,” he said Jan. 27. “We don’t have immediate plans for other things, like early release, in part because we do believe that it is likely that we will see a relatively rapid decline in cases in the relatively near future.”

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

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

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Kim Skarda points at her home on a map on Thursday, June 20, 2024 in Concrete, Washington. A community called Sauk River Estates has a very steep slope above it. There is a DNR-approved timber sale that boarders the estate properties, yet they were not consulted about the sale before approval. The community has already appealed the sale and has hired their own geologist to conduct a slope stability report at the site. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Beneath steep slope, Concrete neighbors fear landslides from logging above

Nielsen Brothers plans to cut 54 acres of timber directly behind the community of 83 homes. Locals said they were never consulted.

Law enforcement respond to a person hit by a train near the Port of Everett Mount Baker Terminal on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
2 killed in waterfront train crashes were near Mukilteo ‘quiet zone’

In June, two people were hit by trains on separate days near Mukilteo Boulevard. “These situations are incredibly tragic,” Everett’s mayor said.

Rob Plotnikoff takes a measurement as a part of the county's State of Our Waters survey at Tambark Creek in Bothell, Washington on Monday, July 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Snohomish County stream team bushwhacks a path to healthier waterways

This summer, the crew of three will survey 40 sites for the State of Our Waters program. It’s science in locals’ backyards.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
4th suspect arrested after Mountlake Terrace home robbery

Police arrested Taievion Rogers, 19, on Tuesday. Prosecutors charged his three alleged accomplices in April.

A 10 acre parcel off of Highway 99, between 240th and 242nd Street Southwest that the city of Edmonds is currently in the process of acquiring on Monday, July 10, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edmonds ditches $37M Landmark public park project off Highway 99

The previous mayor envisioned parks and more in south Edmonds, in a historically neglected area. The new administration is battling budget woes.

Edmonds school official sworn in as Mount Vernon supe

Victor Vergara took his oath of office last week. He was assistant superintendent of equity and student success in Edmonds.

Former president Donald Trump is seen with a bloody ear as he is assisted off the stage during a campaign rally in Butler, Pa., on Saturday. MUST CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Pops, screams and then blood: On the scene at the Trump rally shooting

Isaac Arnsdorf, Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post BUTLER, Pa. - The… Continue reading

Biden, Democrats, Republicans denounce shooting at Trump rally

Reaction pours in from government leaders

A bloodied Donald Trump is surrounded by Secret Service agents at a campaign rally in Butler, Pa, on Saturday, July, 13, 2024. The former president was rushed off stage at rally after sounds like shots; the former president was escorted into his motorcade at his rally in Butler, Pa., a rural town about an hour north of Pittsburgh. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
FBI investigating failed assassination attempt against Trump

Former president ows to remain “defiant in the face of wickedness.”

x
Man charged with hate crime in knife attack at Ezell’s in Edmonds

The suspect, 47, waved a knife at two workers while yelling about getting rid of “the Hispanics,” charging papers say.

Firefighters and EMTs with Sky Valley Fire tour Eagle Falls while on an observational trip on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, near Index, Washington. (Jordan Hansen / The Herald)
Beautiful but deadly: Drownings common at Eagle Falls, other local waters

Locals and firefighters are sounding the alarm as Eagle Falls and the Granite Falls Fish Ladder have claimed five lives this year.

A view of the south eastern area of the Lake Stevens that includes lakeshore and UGA that is a part of the city's annexation area on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 in Lake Stevens, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lake Stevens fight to take over sewer district could end soon

The city and sewer district have been locked in a yearslong dispute. A judge could put an end to the stalemate this month.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.