In this 2016 photo, a man does maintenance work between razor wire-topped fences at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, where more than 100 inmates were involved in a “disturbance.” (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

In this 2016 photo, a man does maintenance work between razor wire-topped fences at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, where more than 100 inmates were involved in a “disturbance.” (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Over 100 Monroe prisoners riot after COVID-19 outbreak

Inmates set off fire extinguishers. Dozens refused commands. It was reportedly under control by 9 p.m.

MONROE — Over 100 inmates were involved in a “disturbance” Wednesday at the Monroe Correctional Complex, sparked by confirmed reports of a COVID-19 outbreak in a low-security wing of the prison.

Inmates set off fire extinguishers in two sections of the minimum security unit around 6 p.m., “providing an appearance of smoke from the exterior,” according to a press release sent out hours later by the state Department of Corrections.

About half of the men in the unit complied with order to stop, according to the state prison agency. An emergency response team used pepper spray and sting balls, which release light, noise and rubber pellets, wrote DOC spokeswoman Susan Biller.

“Because there were men who continue to ignore the directives, sting balls were then discharged into the area,” Biller wrote. “The individuals then stopped the destruction of the two housing units and came into compliance.”

Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said at least eight city officers responded around 6:15 p.m., to help set up a perimeter with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and the state patrol.

“It seems to be under control at this time,” Willis said at 8:45 p.m. ”Our message is there’s no threat to our residents.”

Nobody was injured. Both housing units were fully evacuated. The department plans to conduct an internal investigation.

On Wednesday evening, department officials had confirmed six inmates in a minimum security unit at the prison had tested positive for COVID-19. There are at least 11 other inmates in the facility in isolation, being monitored by medical personnel. Monroe is the only state prison with confirmed coronavirus cases of inmates.

About 450 inmates are held in minimum security in Monroe.

As of late Wednesday, the state Washington Department of Corrections had 13 confirmed cases of staff and one contractor staff with COVID-19. That includes five employees at Monroe. In every case, the worker has self-reported their illness to the department.

“The Department of Corrections continues to work at protecting medically vulnerable incarcerated individuals,” Biller wrote. “All individuals in the housing unit where the first positive individuals were previously housed continue to have no symptoms of illness or disease (asymptomatic) and are wearing surgical masks for further protection.”

Advocates for prisoners have asked the state to release incarcerated people, as a preventive measure against the spread of the deadly virus.

Nick Straley, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, said Wednesday night the group will file an emergency motion Thursday with the state Supreme Court asking for immediate action to resolve the situation at Monroe.

The group filed a lawsuit in March seeking a reduction in the state prison population in response to the virus.

Oral argument had been set for April 23. This new motion aims to bring about action sooner.

“It is absolutely essential that somebody act quickly,” Straley said, “because the governor and Department of Corrections have not taken appropriate steps to address the COVID outbreak.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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