Two more inmates in the minimum security unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex have tested positive for COVID-19. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Two more inmates in the minimum security unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex have tested positive for COVID-19. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

COVID-19 outbreak worsens at Monroe prison

Six incarcerated men and five employees have reportedly tested positive for the virus.

MONROE — An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Monroe Correctional Complex is shining a bright light on a legal effort to force a large-scale release of prisoners who are most at risk of death if infected by the virus.

Six inmates — all housed in the same minimum security unit — as well as five staff have now tested positive, according to figures released Wednesday afternoon by the state Department of Corrections.

“Now that it is an outbreak, it is really concerning,” said Benjamin McNair, an inmate housed in the separate Washington State Reformatory unit of the prison complex. “If it comes here, it will go though this place like wildfire.”

The department announced the first case Sunday night. Two more inmates have since tested positive, according to the Department of Corrections. Those men, ages 68 and 28, had been housed in the same unit. They were transferred to isolation Sunday. The results of their tests were received Tuesday.

Late Wednesday, the number of infected rose to six inmates and five staff members, according to a chart on the agency’s web page. The department did not provide details on the new cases. On Tuesday, the agency said it would no longer send news releases on each new incarcerated individual case.

“We have been planning for this potential,” said Susan Biller, a department spokeswoman. “It wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when.”

Prior to Sunday, one employee at the Monroe prison tested positive for COVID-19. That was in March. Later that month an incarcerated man contracted the virus while staying in a medical center outside the prison.

So far, Monroe is the only state prison with confirmed cases among inmates in Washington. No deaths have been reported.

Agency officials said they had 17 Monroe inmates in isolation — including the six with COVID-19 — where they were getting monitored by the prison’s health care team. The remaining 111 inmates from the minimum security unit where the coronavirus struck were either in protective isolation or quarantine as a preventative measure, according to the agency.

Corrections officials reported 148 inmates had been deemed symptomatic patients statewide. They were put in isolation. Another 1,311 inmates were in quarantine — not showing symptoms, though they had been exposed to a person with a contagious disease. And lab tests were pending for 54 prisoners. The agency site did not specify where those inmates are incarcerated.

Outside of the prison, Snohomish County’s cumulative case count rose Wednesday to 1,695 confirmed infections and 86 “probable” ones, with 63 deaths so far, according to the Snohomish Health District. Statewide, the total case count was 9,097, with 421 fatalities, according to the state Department of Health.

A writ of mandamus filed in March on behalf of five inmates contends there is a real threat of the virus spreading unchecked through every state correctional facility. It argues that Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of Corrections Steve Sinclair must immediately begin to reduce the prison population to protect those inside.

Oral argument before the Supreme Court is set for April 23.

An Inslee spokeswoman said he is working with the department on the situation.

“We have requested information and are reviewing options for actions,” said spokeswoman Tara Lee. “No decisions have been made at this time.”

In a brief filed Mondaywith the state Supreme Court, an attorney for the inmates made the case for their release.

“COVID-19 has arrived inside Washington’s prisons,” wrote attorney Nick Allen of Columbia Legal Services, a civil legal aid law firm. “The outbreak has begun.”

One of the petitioners in the suit is Terry Kill, 52, who is incarcerated in the same unit that housed the first inmate to test positive.

The brief argues the close living quarters, and sharing of bathrooms and other facilities, heightens the risk of the disease spreading should it be introduced.

Kill is housed in a dormitory-style wing with roughly 30 to 40 other people, Allen wrote.

They all “breathe the same air, and use the same toilets, showers, and sinks,” Allen wrote. “Mr. Kill is worried about contracting COVID-19 not only because of his communal living situation, but also because of his work in the kitchen where he stood shoulder to shoulder for hours on end with many other people.”

Allen wrote that Washington “is quickly becoming an outlier by continuing to refuse to release anyone from its prisons as a public health response to COVID19.”

Several states, he notes, have taken such steps. There are efforts underway to reduce the numbers of people locked up in federal prisons and county jails, too.

Snohomish County, for example, had about 800 inmates in the county jail at the beginning of March. Since then the population has dropped below 360, a dramatic decrease that has allowed each inmate to be housed in a single-occupancy cell, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

As of Wednesday, a total of two inmates at the Snohomish County Jail had tested positive for COVID-19. Both have since been released, and one had been deemed “recovered.” The sheriff’s office reported one employee had tested positive. That worker was known to have been exposed to the virus while off duty, and had last been on the job March 27. All staff and inmates are being screened for symptoms prior to entry to the county lockup.

“Prisons are not equipped to mitigate against the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19, putting vulnerable people in the prison at a significant risk of severe illness or even death,” Allen said in a statement issued Tuesday. “Release is the only option to protect our clients and other vulnerable people to allow for appropriate levels of ‘social distancing’ and sanitation in the prison.”

Benjamin McNair said he is nearly halfway through an eight-year sentence for assault and robbery. He’s housed in a different minimum security unit than the one where the initial COVID-19 cases were confirmed.

In a phone call, he said his unit is in a 14-day quarantine that should end this week. Meals are brought to the cells. Small groups are allowed out for short periods of time, with enforced social distancing.

“Our only vulnerability right now is staff,” McNair said. “They’re not all taking precautions.”

Some, but not all, are wearing N95 respirator masks or donning gloves. They aren’t keeping the required distance from incarcerated people when walking through the facility or delivering food, McNair said.

Facility staff who were issued those masks are being strongly encouraged to wear them, according to the department. All transfers in and out of the Monroe Correctional Complex ceased as of Tuesday morning.

Concerns similar to McNair’s were expressed by prisoners and family members in a document compiled by the Department of Corrections Ombuds Office.

The crowd-sourced survey asked about the department’s implementation of prevention measures such as social distancing and cleaning supplies for cells. One question asked about recommendations to improve social distancing. Several responses suggested releasing inmates, especially the most vulnerable.

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

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