COVID Creates Rising Tension Among WA Prison Population

The COVID-19 pandemic has reached Washington State’s Monroe Correctional Complex, and concerns are rising after a riot from the prison on April 8. As a result of the riot, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that “some” state prisoners could be released early to prevent unnecessary deaths as well as to free up space. A couple of days after the announcement, on April 13, Inslee revealed that nonviolent offenders across Washington prisons, who are more vulnerable to complications from the novel coronavirus, will be getting an early release.

On March 16,  an advocate group of community-based organizations, legal services providers, and concerned stakeholders, wrote a letter to Inslee in hopes to prevent the virus from spreading within prisons. They presented an array of steps that the governor should take, one of them is to release the elderly and people within six months of release. More than 30 people rallied outside of the capitol building on April 11, echoing the letter. “We are looking to get a message across to Inslee, about freeing the inmates that are at… minimum security units,” rally organizer April Franklin said. Both the letter and the rally yearn for the release of minimum security inmates to create space for COVID-19 tested prisoners to quarantine.

Josh Vermaat, an inmate in the minimum security unit at Monroe Correctional Complex, wrote earlier in the week to a friend that the prison was trying to move inmates to floors where there had previously been people sick with coronavirus. According to KUOW, Vermaat said that the staff tried to bribe them [inmates] with food from McDonald’s. “All I can say for sure is that we are not being given any personal protective equipment,” one inmate wrote in a letter. “We are not being allowed ample time to contact the family. We’re forced to walk and eat within a couple of feet of each other, instead of six, and made to live with another man in the same cell.” Ten inmates and five staff members at the Monroe prison are diagnosed with coronavirus.

            “The riot was the only way for us to be heard,” one Monroe inmate said. In response to the virus spreading in the correctional complex, over 100 inmates created a “major disturbance” by refusing to leave the courtyard and setting off fire extinguishers in two sections of the minimum security units. According to the Department of Corrections, “All measures to bring individuals into compliance were ignored including verbal directives, pepper (OC) spray and sting balls.” It was only until the Washington State Patrol arrived that the situation became controlled around 9:00 p.m.

 On April 9, inmates at the prison filed a motion to the Washington State Supreme Court, asking the higher court to order Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair to “release inmates who are 60 years old or older, those with underlying health conditions, and any who are close to their release date.” Following the motion, the State Supreme Court ordered Inslee and Sinclair “to immediately exercise their authority to take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of the named petitioners and all Department of Corrections inmates in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.” Inslee and Sinclair had until noon on Monday to submit their report.

            The Department of Corrections alongside Inslee on April 13 unveiled that 600-950 inmates are going to be released from prison. The prisoners released are nonviolent offenders who are more susceptible to COVID-19. The release dates for prisoners will be within six to eight months; this will take place in the coming days. Covered by Q13 Fox, “The plan will focus on inmates serving time for nonviolent and drug- or alcohol-related offenses, as well as people held on lower-level supervision violations.”