Advocates Call on Gov. Inslee and Department of Corrections to take Swift and Decisive Action to Prevent Spread of COVID-19 in State Prisons

News Release: 
Monday, March 16, 2020

A coalition of 14 advocates, activists, and community organizations called upon Governor Inslee and the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) to take immediate steps to mitigate the extreme risks facing people living and working in Washington’s state prisons due to the current COVID-19 outbreak in our state.

Prisons and jails are particularly ill-suited to address the current pandemic. People live in close contact with one another, social distancing is difficult, hygiene services and essential medical equipment is in short supply, and medical treatment is not easily accessible. Once COVID-19 breaks out, it will likely spread quickly through our prisons. Unfortunately, with Friday’s announcement that a correctional officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex has tested positive for COVID-19, the danger has already arrived and additional infections will occur, if they haven’t already. Without decisive action, a prison sentence in Washington may quickly turn into a death sentence.

“Even in the best of times, the Department of Corrections struggles to meet the basic medical needs of people living in its facilities,”1 said Nick Straley, Assistant Deputy Director of Advocacy at Columbia Legal Services. “The Department of Corrections is simply not equipped to provide the level and quality of medical care that will be required in an outbreak, and unless immediate and serious steps are taken, people will die.”

Accordingly, Governor Inslee and DOC must take the following steps to protect the people in Washington’s prisons and slow the spread of COVID-19 within that population:

1. Release aging and medically compromised people in custody.
More than 1,900 people in DOC’s custody are over 56 and the vast majority have serious medical issues. While people in this age group are at the greatest risk of death from COVID-19, they also pose the lowest public safety risk to our communities.2 This vulnerable population should be released immediately.

Importantly, DOC has the authority under existing law to release medically fragile individuals. See DOC policy 350.270; also, RCW 9.94A.728. DOC should immediately exercise its authority and begin releasing these people to the community. DOC must work with public health officials and social service providers to ensure that each person receives appropriate supports and connection to community-based health services.

2. Immediately release people who are within six months of their release date.
In order to further decrease the overall population and provide more flexibility and resources to meet the coming crisis, DOC should also immediately release those people who are within six months of their estimated release date to community supervision. These people are overwhelmingly in the lowest level security classifications. Again, DOC has this authority under its recently created Graduated Reentry program and should take this step immediately.

3. Repurpose community custody officers away from issuing violations to people under supervision and toward providing assistance and supports to keep people safe.
People on community custody are routinely locked up in local or county jails for minor violations of their conditions of release. Though the dangers facing people currently housed in DOC custody are significant, many local and county jails are even more unprepared to address the coming health crisis in their facilities. Thus, DOC should immediately place a moratorium on issuing violations and instead provide resources and support to people under its supervision in order to keep them, their families, and their communities safe.

4. Provide COVID-19 testing and treatment in a manner that meets or exceeds community-based standards of care.
People living in DOC facilities must be provided at least the same level of care that people living outside prison receive. To the extent that DOC will continue to hold people facing serious medical crises in custody, it must be able to meet their needs. DOC must therefore ensure that it has enough ventilators, intensive care beds, negative pressure rooms, quarantine areas, and practitioners who are skilled in treating the extremely sick people who may soon be requiring care due to COVID-19.

5. Provide all people living in its care unfettered access to soap and water, hand sanitizers, and single use towels.
DOC should immediately suspend any prohibition on the possession of alcohol-based hand sanitizer and provide all people living in DOC facilities with an adequate supply of essential hygiene products at no cost. It should also ensure that all people, including those in segregation, suicide watch, and infirmaries, have access to hot water and soap.

6. Implement social distancing measures to the extent possible.
DOC should implement social distancing to the extent possible. However, these efforts should not result in prolonged, widespread lockdowns or the use of solitary confinement and should be limited in duration and scope.

7. Provide telephone and email access to incarcerated people free of cost.
In all circumstances, the exorbitant phone and email charges that people living in DOC facilities face is unconscionable. However, at this time of great social disruption and fear, when DOC has stopped all in-person visitation, denying people access to loved ones because they are unable to afford it is particularly inappropriate. During this crisis, DOC must ensure that incarcerated people can maintain contact with their spouses, children, and other family members without being forced to pay for that right.

8. Ensure that people in custody and their families receive updated, comprehensive, timely and thorough information.
Many people living in DOC facilities lack basic information about how to protect themselves from COVID-19, or what to expect should they become infected. DOC must issue thorough, accessible instructions and directives to all people under its care, as well as their family members.

The actions above are informed by the recommendations of experts in correctional medicine and the CDC itself. By calling on DOC to release those who are older and most high risk for infection, advocates seek to protect these vulnerable people as well as decrease the prison population so that DOC has the flexibility and staffing to respond to a pandemic within its walls.

“This current crisis highlights the need for DOC and policymakers to take a critical look at mass incarceration in our state,” said Jaime Hawk, Legal Strategy Director, ACLU of Washington Campaign for Smart Justice. Our prisons are at capacity and we are spending millions of dollars every year to put people in cages, millions that could be better spent bolstering our community health care and education system. We need to take further action to permanently reduce the numbers of people living in custody and this is a first step on that road.”

1) See Straley, Nick, Gone But Not Forgotten: The Untold Stories of Jail Deaths in Washington, Columbia Legal Services (May 2019).
2) See Beckett, Katherine, About Time: How Life and Long Sentences Fuel Mass Incarceration in Washington, ACLU of Washington (2020), p. 48.