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

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

Families: Loved ones behind bars are not ‘in good spirits’

In a letter, they dispute the characterization by the state Corrections secretary after her visit in Monroe.

OLYMPIA — Family members of people living in state prisons want to set the record straight on conditions endured by their loved ones.

In a letter released Friday, they insisted the Department of Corrections is mismanaging the COVID-19 crisis and misleading the public on the mood of those locked up in Washington correctional facilities.

They called for “vastly revised” protocols that account for the long-term nature of the pandemic. The current approach is “short-sighted,” and continuous revisions the past two years have brought “disruption and harm into prisoners’ lives with nearly every round.”

Confinement for days, cold meals, lack of clean clothing and difficulty getting medication are among the many ongoing concerns cited in the letter.

“COVID is with us permanently, and people cannot continue bearing this torture like some miserable Groundhog Day every year,” reads the letter sent to Gov. Jay Inslee and Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange.

They took particular umbrage at Strange’s comments to The Daily Herald that prisoners she met in a Feb. 2 visit to the Monroe Correctional Complex were “doing well” and “in good spirits.”

“Families of the incarcerated across the state are hearing from our loved ones that they are not ‘in good spirits,’ and we are writing in hopes of correcting the understanding Secretary Strange and the Governor’s Office seem to have about the reality of what our loved ones and our families are experiencing during this time,” the letter reads.

Late Friday, a department spokeswoman offered a response.

“We know the current pandemic is very difficult for incarcerated individuals and their families. Secretary Strange’s comment that those with whom she spoke with were in good spirits is fair and accurate given the current circumstances,” Communications Director Jacque Coe wrote in an email. “DOC continues to be in weekly — and often daily — contact with the Department of Health and follows CDC guidelines to ensure the safety of those under our care and custody.”

The letter was signed by members of 50 families of people living in prisons across the state. It was sent the day after top corrections officials met with roughly 100 family members to discuss concerns. Strange did not attend.

“The biggest thing we want to focus on is humanity,” said Kehaulani Walker, founder of Families of the Incarcerated, whose husband is imprisoned in Monroe. “We would love to see the Department of Corrections find a protocol that works. The protocol they use is not working … it is not keeping the community inside safe.”

Walker is one of the signatories but did not write the letter. She did organize Thursday’s meeting, where a key message was that family members want greater access to loved ones.

In-person visitation has been disallowed most of the past two years. It’s currently paused until March because of the omicron-fueled surge of the past few weeks.

“It’s been pretty heart-wrenching,” Walker said.

Washington State Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange outside the Twin Rivers Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex on Feb. 2. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Washington State Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange outside the Twin Rivers Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex on Feb. 2. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Though the department reported outbreaks at 16 prisons and work release facilities Friday, there are signs the virus’ spread is slowing.

Across the state, 1,514 people were in medical isolation, half the total from a week ago. Similarly, the department reported 5,189 in quarantine, down from 7,190.

At Monroe, 240 people in custody and 44 employees had contracted the virus in the past two weeks. The figures a week ago were 600 and 34, respectively.

Following her visit to Monroe, Strange said she understood those in custody were tiring of the pandemic.

In an effort to boost spirits 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, everyone is getting a “Super Bowl goodie bag” with freeze-dried coffee, fruit drink mixes, tortilla chips, sandwich crackers, cheese, beef ramen, summer sausage and jalapeño squeeze cheese.

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

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