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.

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