“We Know There Are Sick People in Here”: Inmates Claim DOC Measures Just for Show

by Carolyn Bick

Every day, Dave M. works in the Washington Corrections Center kitchen. He stands right next to fellow inmates, all of whom are currently without masks, to make meals for the rest of the prison’s population. He says nothing in the kitchens have been moved or changed to make it safer for himself and his fellow kitchen workers. All the measures the Department of Corrections has announced its prisons are taking? He says they’re just for show.

“There’s marking on the floor for social distance that’s not being enforced. But it looks good that they are doing it. We have them on our walkways, our breezeways. When we go to work, they don’t enforce the social distance … but when we go on breaks, they enforce it, just for people looking on the cameras for show,” Dave says. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. I’d rather be shut down, we don’t go to work, because we know there are sick people in here, for sure. But if you don’t test those sick people, then they can say they have no confirmed cases.”

So, when Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Stephen Sinclair give a press conference on April 9 in response to a demonstration at Monroe Corrections Complex (MCC) the night before, in which inmates protested conditions during the pandemic, Dave is taken aback. In the press conference about the demonstration, which garnered national attention, it appears to him as though both Inslee and Sinclair lay the blame squarely at the inmates’ feet, and make it sound as though the measures the state’s prisons are taking are otherwise going off without incident. 

But this doesn’t match what Dave is seeing inside his prison: sick men who aren’t being tested, lax distancing measures exacerbated by overcrowding, and important news that’s slow to reach the inmates themselves.

The Washington Corrections Center (WCC) is also known simply as “Shelton,” due to the fact it’s located in Shelton, Washington on the southeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Dave uses one of the three communal phones at the prison to talk with the Emerald late in the afternoon on April 11, a couple days before Inslee announces the early release of 950 inmates from the state’s prisons. These are phones that inmates spray and wipe down, between uses. It’s a practice he thinks is “a bad risk,” but one all prisoners have to take to communicate with loved ones and others on the outside.

One of the things that worries him and that doesn’t square with the implied messaging in the April 9 press conference, Dave says, is that he and his fellow food workers have been preparing upwards of 50 isolation trays per day for a group of men.

“We make 50-some isolation trays for people that are sick. So, we know it’s here. They are just not testing so they can say we have no confirmed cases,” Dave says. His voice sounds muffled, and phone static crackles through his words. “I don’t know for sure if they can’t afford the testing, or they just don’t want to test. I don’t know. But I know that amount of people, every day, we make food for. … We’ll never know, because they’re not tested.”

What’s more, news within the prison is unreliable, Dave’s friend James N. says. He said he’s heard of a tier of men within the prison who are currently under quarantine. Tiers at WCC consist of 15 cells on either side, and usually hold two people per cell, for a total of 60 people per tier. But because they’re under quarantine, James has heard the number has been reduced to just one person per cell, pending test results.

But he doesn’t know any of this for sure. The only thing he knows with any certainty is that two corrections officers within the prison have tested positive for the virus, and that there are rumours of an unknown number of sick men in the prison’s population.

“And even then, if it wasn’t for other inmates telling us, we wouldn’t know what was going on. Or other [corrections officers] here telling us,” James says. “The administration itself has not came out and told us. This is stuff we have gathered among ourselves.”

James says he gets sick easily. He doesn’t know if he has a weak immune system, but he’s been careful to wipe everything down and wash his hands using the bar of soap he and others at WCC have received. He’s still nervous, though, particularly since WCC serves as an intake facility for people coming from county jails.

At a recent tier rep meeting, where representatives from each tier of inmates may voice their concerns to a custody supervisor, James asks what will happen, if someone who comes into the prison tests positive for the novel coronavirus? Will they shut down the institution? Will they stop intakes?

“We haven’t got a clear answer. They are still uncertain of what to do, because, like I said, it’s like business as usual,” James says. “I think they are more concerned with the bottom line.”

The DOC follows federal guidelines to differentiate between quarantine and isolation. When someone is in isolation, it means they are symptomatic and at risk of spreading disease. When a person is in quarantine, it means they are being observed for signs of disease. Speaking to the Emerald on April 14, DOC Engagement and Outreach Director Jeremy Barclay disputes the idea that there are at least 50 people in isolation at WCC, and says they were likely in quarantine, instead. Still, Barclay admits he doesn’t know the situation at the prison, as he hasn’t seen conditions there firsthand. 

Barclay says that DOC staff can’t officially enforce distancing, because failure to distance is currently not an official punishable offense within the state’s prisons. Instead, officers encourage inmates to practice distancing on their own. He also says DOC staffers have walked kitchen staff through distancing protocols within the kitchens.

As for screening, Barclay says that if inmates are showing symptoms of COVID-19, they will be tested. He says the DOC has been screening everyone who comes through the prison, corrections officers and inmates alike. Barclay notes that each new inmate has their  temperature taken and is administered a six-question, yes-or-no questionnaire to determine if someone needs to be tested or quarantined, upon entering WCC. So far, at the time of this writing, only two corrections officers at WCC and no inmates have reportedly tested positive for the novel coronavirus, though 10 inmates and five corrections officers at MCC have tested positive, according to the DOC’s webpage addressing the pandemic.

But there are several loopholes. Though the questionnaire states that a person may not enter either the facility or administrative offices, if they answer yes to one or more of the questions, that rule may be overridden by a DOC medical professional. As for the temperatures? According to the questionnaire, only temperatures of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or above are considered worthy of red flags. Normal human body temperature has recently been updated to stand at an average of 97.5 degrees Fahrenheit, though it can still range up to 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

And even if inmates do experience a fever, before entering the prison, or if they develop one inside, it’s not that easy to see a doctor at WCC, Dave says. In his experience, getting medical treatment at the prison has been difficult, even before the pandemic. Now, it’s much harder. He says there have been several people in his tier who have gotten sick, but who haven’t been tested, because it’s just too difficult to get medical attention, and medical providers are not always on hand.

“They just take care of themselves. … Medical here is not right, but it’s been like that for the longest. Even if you go to the doctor, I don’t think there’s any test there to confirm it. Just probably be shipped out some place,” he says. “It’s harder now. … [You have to] sign up for medical. If the [medical] provider does not come in, then you’re [done] for the day. Sign up again the next day. You’d have to declare a medical emergency, and who knows what would happen after that.”

Dave also says he knows of at least one friend who was sick and who was transferred elsewhere. He doesn’t know where he went, but says this friend was still sick when he was transferred. Dave doesn’t know if this friend was tested, but says “he had all the symptoms of the coronavirus.”

It’s also been shown that people can be asymptomatic, yet still shed the virus. Barclay says that the DOC follows the Washington State Department of Health’s and Centers for Disease Control’s current guidelines, which dictate that tests are only necessary if people are showing disease symptoms. This could mean people both in and out of quarantine have it, but aren’t showing symptoms. Does this testing policy extend to the inmates who are slated to be released, too?

Barclay repeats his answer: they only test, if the person is symptomatic. If someone isn’t passing a screen, then “that would be a second pool that we would look toward the testing.”

As per current state regulations, the DOC is also still actively transferring inmates within the system. Again, only those who show symptoms of the virus are tested. But imagine, says prisoner advocate and former inmate Xing Hey, a bus full of men from different prisons, clinking chains shackling them together. That’s what prison transport looks like.

“Just imagine your city bus,” Hey says. “There’s hundreds of people in there — packed together, chained together — and how that could expose and put folks at risk and folks could bring that then to prisons and things like that.”

Hey is speaking with the Emerald over the phone on April 10, a day after Inslee’s press conference, and the same day the Washington State Supreme Court has already made a ruling on an emergency motion directing Inslee and Sinclair to take “all necessary steps” to protect the state’s inmates. Hey has problems with much of what Inslee and Sinclair have said the day before, and says “there’s no room.”

“It’s an emergency situation, and you’re requiring people to social distance and that’s not possible in there. How do you expect that initiative to social distance?” Hey says. He’s referring to Washington State’s — and, indeed, the nation’s — chronic overcrowding in its prisons.

This overcrowding plays out in other ways across the Washington State prison system. Hey says there are reports from Stafford Creek Corrections Center near Aberdeen of three men sleeping in what is supposed to be a two-person cell. He says the third person is being made to sleep on the floor, so prison staff may open up a unit specifically for quarantine, because there is no room otherwise. But putting more inmates together puts them all at greater risk, Hey says, particularly since there is no testing protocol for asymptomatic inmates.

“Given the concentration of folks inside, and how they’re operating in there, that stuff can spread real fast,” Hey says. “I’m formerly incarcerated myself, and I was actually at [MCC], where that stuff happened … and it’s impossible. Imagine a dorm, if you can, an Army barrack dorm, or a dorm inside a college, and everybody’s just on top of each other. There’s no separate rooms, so I understand why folks there protested. There’s no way to self-isolate.”

According to the DOC’s most recent numbers, there is an average daily prison population of 16,565 people. The maximum capacity across all state prisons is 16,228.

On April 13, Inslee announces that up to 950 inmates in the state’s prison system will be released, in order to relieve the population burden. This is less than a twelfth of what the motion asked for, but the court ruling did not order compliance with that number.

As of this writing, there is no word on how many inmates from each prison will be released.

Though Inslee and Sinclair only specifically address the demonstration at MCC in the April 9 press conference, they say that inmates’ reticence to go into isolation is unhelpful. Though they say prison staff make every effort to allow inmates to bring their things with them, this isn’t absolute. And while Sinclair says the DOC is “willing to be creative,” when it comes to identifying isolation spaces, he also says prisons have the option of moving inmates to what he calls “segregation beds.”  

Such accommodations are also officially called isolation or solitary confinement. Among inmates, they’re called “the hole.” They’ve earned that name for a reason, says Hey.

“It’s not being moved into a different cell in the main population. It’s being moved into isolation, which nobody — I mean, given the trauma, or the punishment that is isolation, don’t nobody want to go into isolation … being in a cell that you’re locked in for, with barely any windows in, for 24 hours a day, because you are deemed sick or not,” Hey says. “I think that’s what’s problematic about the whole thing. They go on TV, talking about inmates are rioting and … scapegoating inmates for the sake of saying the right thing.”

James also feels as though Inslee and Sinclair are scapegoating inmates.

“What the governor is saying is incongruous, and what the secretary of prisons is saying is incongruous, as far as individuals who may be unwilling to go into isolation. It’s just false, you know, because it makes it seem like it’s all our fault that we are not wanting to go into isolation,” James says, his voice rising a bit. “When you go into isolation, you’re stuck in there for 24 hours a day for however long it takes for them to come back with those test results. And nobody wants to give up what little luxury they have to go in … to be potentially exposed [to] other guys who were there.”

Prison conditions are such that “luxuries” translate into things people who are not incarcerated take for granted. They’re not easy to get, and the potential threat of their loss is met with resistance. So, when prison officials offer them, they’re expected to go a long way. 

In this case, that means the DOC is putting prisoners in danger, in part because prisons don’t have the capacity to separate out the vulnerable, while safely housing the rest of the population. A day before the Monroe Corrections Complex protest, the prison’s superintendent uses McDonald’s meals to try to bribe inmates to move into dormitories that previously housed men who had been sick with the coronavirus, in order to create more isolation space for more vulnerable inmates. 

This doesn’t work. On the evening of April 8, more than 100 Monroe inmates take part in a recreation yard protest of their treatment and the prison’s conditions during the pandemic. Though about half the inmates return to their cells, about 50 do not. They set off fire extinguishers, instead. Corrections officers quell the rest of the resistance with pepper spray and sting balls, which emit light, noise, and rubber pellets.

No other prisons in Washington State have reported protests since then.

A lack of protests doesn’t mean inmates aren’t genuinely frightened. If Dave and James’ stories are any indication, their nerves are as raw as the skin on their hands, which threaten to bleed from scrubbing. There’s an air of doom and nervous waiting. 

It’s clear Dave is on edge. As he describes the prison’s medical conditions, he interrupts himself. Something’s just happened. He doesn’t think it’s related to the novel coronavirus, but all the anxiety he experiences on a daily basis comes spilling out.

“Literally, literally, I just seen them take a guy out who couldn’t walk. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but they [inaudible] him out of here, and don’t know what’s — I’ll find out later what’s wrong with him. I know he got carried out by two of his friends. Like, literally, that was five minutes ago,” he says. His tone doesn’t change, but his words briefly speed up, tripping out of his mouth. “It’s pretty real in here. Pretty bad. But maybe it was just something on a medical emergency, I don’t know. But I know he couldn’t walk, he had to be carried out.”

According to the DOC’s current practices, unless he displays symptoms of the virus, this man Dave describes won’t be tested. Instead, he’ll end up back in his cell, where he’ll sleep among the rest of the inmates in his tier.

And all of them will wait.

Author’s Note: James’ and Dave’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.