MONROE — Prisoners and their advocates demanded the swift release of medically vulnerable inmates in Washington state prisons Thursday, hours after tensions boiled over in an angry protest by more than 100 inmates in a low-security wing of the Monroe Correctional Complex.
Amid a COVID-19 outbreak in the penitentiary, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday afternoon that in the coming days some state prisoners could be released to prevent unnecessary illnesses and deaths, as well as to free up space within the complex, so that prisoners are less packed in.
“Generally,” Inslee said, “we’re looking at nonviolent offenders, who are nearing their appropriate release date, who because of age or health conditions have a higher risk of potentially contracting the disease and having a fatal result.”
Secretary of Corrections Steve Sinclair said face masks will soon be mandatory for all prison staff, and once the resources become available, prisoners will be given masks, too.
Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court could soon intercede in some fashion. An emergency motion filed with the court on behalf of inmates Thursday seeks to compel the state to thin populations at all state prisons through a large-scale release.
These developments come after the state Department of Corrections had confirmed Wednesday that six inmates in a minimum security unit at the Monroe prison tested positive for COVID-19. At least 11 more Monroe inmates were being held in isolation, monitored by medical personnel. One of the inmates is now hospitalized.
The department is also reporting 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff. That includes five employees at Monroe. In every case, the worker self-reported their illness to the department.
Snohomish County’s total case count rose Thursday to 1,745 confirmed infections and 103 “probable,” with 64 deaths so far, according to the Snohomish Health District. Statewide, the case count was 9,608, with 446 fatalities.
As of Thursday, Monroe was the only state prison with confirmed cases among inmates. The mother of one inmate forwarded emails to The Daily Herald recounting events before the tipping point Wednesday.
“It is confirmed this morning that the virus is in MY living unit,” the prisoner wrote Monday. “Suddenly, all of us with the least amount of time to serve have potential life sentences.”
Over time, possibly infected inmates were being moved elsewhere, he wrote. He told his mother that staff were taking temperatures twice a day.
In the early morning hours Wednesday, officers brought “a bag of McDonald hamburgers and told us we gotta move out of our room and go to the tier where the virus is on. Five more people from that tier tested positive today and they want me to move over there??”
Inmates set off fire extinguishers around 6 p.m. Wednesday in two sections of the minimum security unit, “providing an appearance of smoke from the exterior,” according to a state Department of Corrections news release.
About half of the men in the unit complied with orders to stop, according to the prison agency. An emergency response team used pepper spray and sting balls, which release light, noise and rubber pellets.
“The individuals then stopped the destruction of the two housing units and came into compliance,” wrote Corrections spokeswoman Susan Biller.
Monroe police, Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies and Washington State Patrol troopers responded to set up a perimeter around the complex. The Monroe Police Department said the situation appeared under control by 8:45 p.m.
Inslee and Sinclair said the rebellion was sparked by older and medically vulnerable inmates’ resistance to relocating to new quarters where they could be isolated and thus at less risk of exposure. Other inmates protested the move in solidarity, leading to what one inmate described as more like a sit-in than a riot.
Reportedly, nobody was seriously hurt.
On Thursday morning, the prisoner sent another message to his mother.
“I’m back in my cell and hopefully it’s all over,” he wrote. “This is not a safe place right now.”
Some inmates did refer to the unrest as a “riot.”
Authorities called it a “disturbance.”
The Associated Press labeled it both a “protest” and a “riot.”
The state plans to conduct an internal investigation into the incident.
“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.”
Protecting inmates is going to require them to cooperate by moving and forgoing some comforts, Inslee said.
“If we’re going to provide safety for the most vulnerable, some of the other inmates may have to give up their television for a little while,” Inslee said.
Fewer inmates are getting held at Monroe, Sinclair said. The governor said they haven’t stopped arriving, however, in part because “some of the counties have reduced their (jail) populations by just turning them over to the state.”
“Crime has continued, unfortunately,” Inslee said.
Meanwhile, a group of inmates followed up with that emergency court motion Thursday, asking for immediate action and calling the Department of Corrections response to the pandemic “dangerously ineffective.” The inmates had originally filed a petition in March, requesting intervention from the state Supreme Court.
In court papers, one inmate described how he has become “more and more stressed” since the first positive test and how he has had to rely on using a single surgical mask that he can’t clean.
He explained that attempts at implementing social distancing have not worked. Even though units have been on rotation for the gym and recreation yard, everyone is still using the same common areas, and cleaning practices “remain poor, at best.” He described growing unrest in one unit that was reportedly quarantined, where inmates tore signs off doors, ran around the hallways and ignored prison staff. Court papers also corroborated reports that corrections officers brought in McDonald’s food in an attempt to placate inmates.
The inmate warned that the actions taken so far are not tenable.
“We are living on top of each other,” he wrote. “Having lots of people coughing and sneezing is creating a lot of irritability and frustration. Forcing everyone to stay contained in those conditions can result in violence.”
Oral arguments were set for April 23.
Nick Straley, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, responded to the events by saying Wednesday night that the group would seek to speed the process of getting the case in front of the state Supreme Court.
“It is absolutely essential that somebody act quickly,” Straley told The Herald, “because the governor and Department of Corrections have not taken appropriate steps to address the COVID outbreak.”
The petitioners followed up with another motion submitted at 8:16 a.m. Thursday to the state Supreme Court.
“The outbreak has begun and rather than address it properly, the Respondents have brought in overwhelming force to keep people in line,” the petition states.
A proposed emergency order would require the department to immediately test anyone who has been in custody the past 14 days; ensure robust screening, isolation and quarantine procedures; and begin releasing inmates who are vulnerable or close to their release dates.
“Our minimum security inmate deaths are preventable,” read a statement on behalf of Twyla Kill, the wife of petitioner and inmate Terry Kill. “We demand that Inslee and Sinclair act now to save lives. These men are low risk and are already about to get out.”
The corrections secretary said that prison officials would get creative. Staff could bring RVs to the complex, if needed, Sinclair said.
Michelle Woodrow, the president and executive director of the union representing corrections officers, said Teamsters 117 was “extremely proud of our members’ response to the disturbance.”
“Despite the challenging nature of the incident and the large number of incarcerated individuals involved, corrections staff were able to secure the impacted parts of the facility in less than an hour,” Woodrow said.
Correctional officers “are working diligently to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” she said, by adhering to social distancing protocols; screening all people entering prisons; and testing, treating and isolating symptomatic individuals.
“These are stressful, frightening times for our entire community,” Woodrow said. “Our members put their lives on the line to protect all of us.”
About 450 inmates are held in minimum security at Monroe.
“We’re worried about (staff) bringing it in,” Benjamin McNair, an inmate housed in the separate Washington State Reformatory unit of the prison complex, said on Thursday. “If they were wearing those respirator masks and gloves I would think that would calm the facility down. … The main reason people are rioting, from what I can gather, is that the Department of Corrections staff is not taking precautions even though they say they are.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.