Community Members Expose Harmful, Racist COVID-19 Response in Washington Prisons

by Guy Oron

Families of incarcerated people, advocates, and community organizers held a press conference Wednesday to shine a light on the intersecting crises of racism and COVID-19 in Washington State prisons. The press conference, organized by Seattle COVID-19 Mutual Aid and Columbia Legal Services, denounced the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) handling of the pandemic, saying its response has been inadequate, negligent, and harmful.

Organizers claimed that the DOC’s response highlights the deeply embedded structural racism within the department. Washington’s carceral system disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color as well as poor and working class communities. According to DOC statistics, Black people are over-incarcerated at a rate of more than 400% compared to the state’s population, while Indigenous people are more than 300% overrepresented.

These groups are also, therefore, overrepresented among the incarcerated who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. The Marshall Project reports that as of August 18, nearly 103,000 incarcerated people across the United States have tested positive, a 7% increase from the week before. In Washington state, the DOC has confirmed that over 400 incarcerated people and nearly 150 staff have tested positive. Last month, an outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Eastern Washington led to harrowing reports of inedible food and incarcerated people unable to access restrooms due to strict isolation policies.

These outbreaks have led to the deaths of two people: Victor Bueno and William Bryant. At the press conference, E. Rose Harriot, who has family members in both Washington and Oregon prisons, said that these deaths are “the natural, if probable, consequences of [the DOC’s] actions and their lack of actions. They need to be held accountable for that. We need to call it what it is, and that’s murder.”

One of the main arguments made at the press conference was that the DOC has employed a punitive and counterproductive approach to dealing with COVID-19 cases. When a person tests positive, they are placed in solitary confinement, a practice routinely employed as punishment for incarcerated people. “If people experience punishment in response to being sick, it simply disincentivizes people to seek medical care and disclose any symptoms that they might be experiencing,” said Danny Waxwing, an attorney at Disability Rights Washington. “And solitary confinement makes people sicker.” 

Attorney, activist, artist, and community organizer Nikkita Oliver said that the organizers of the press conference are asking the DOC to stop using solitary confinement. In some cases, such as at Coyote Ridge, solitary has been used as a form of distancing even for people who tested negative. “Solitary confinement is torture. We are asking them to stop using it to address COVID. We are demanding care and compassion for our incarcerated loved ones,” said Oliver.

Organizers also suggested that the pandemic exposes and intensifies long-standing issues in the state prison system, such as medical neglect and harsh, punitive conditions.

Dean Rhodes, who is the husband of Cynthia Sue Miller Rhodes, claimed that the DOC has mishandled his wife’s medical conditions. Miller Rhodes, who is 60 years old and incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, is currently suffering from organ failure and undergoing extreme levels of stress. Rhodes said that despite these serious health conditions, the DOC has refused to transfer her to a hospital or allow her access to specialized medical care. “I don’t see how the Department of Corrections cannot take [her medical conditions] serious [sic],” he said. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose her.” 

According to his sister Shandra Eknes, Harold Donald, who was imprisoned at Stafford Creek Correctional Center, was assaulted on June 23 at 3 a.m. by three correctional officers after forgetting to wear a mask when going to the restroom. Eknes said that Donald was “handcuffed, pepper sprayed, tackled down to the ground, and then beaten.” Eknes also said that the officer who was punching him used racial slurs and two out of the three officers were not wearing face masks. 

Donald was then taken to Washington Corrections Center in Shelton and put in solitary confinement. According to Eknes, Donald has been in solitary confinement for 58 days straight and still has unhealed injuries from his assault, including not being able to see from his left eye. Donald, who is disabled, has not been able to see an eye doctor or have a mental health evaluation yet, despite being in solitary for nearly two months. “His mental health is rapidly declining and I’m terrified for not only his mental but physical well-being,” said Eknes.

Despite fears of retaliation from DOC officers, Eknes said that “he wants me to continue to fight for justice for him.”

The organizers of the press conference made four concrete demands to the DOC to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and reduce harm from the carceral state. They want the state to cut the prison population by at least 50% through clemency, commutations, and legislative changes; that would, they said, not only move society towards justice but also reduce the chances of COVID-19 transmission by creating more space for distancing. They are also asking the state legislature and governor to defund the DOC’s $2 billion budget by at least $300 million, improve medical care and the quality of life of incarcerated people, and reject the proposed expansion of electronic home monitoring.

According to Waxwing, Governor Jay Inslee’s office is currently the main obstacle to  decarceration. Despite the significant health risks from having so many people in prison, “this past week his office told my colleagues that they are not even considering releasing more people. Right now, the ball is in the governor’s court,” said Waxwing.

Through protests, hunger strikes, and other forms of grassroots community mobilization, organizers hope to bring about these changes and are asking other community members to join them.

“The pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that prisons have always been inhumane places,” said Nick Allen, attorney at Columbia Legal Services. “However, the pandemic didn’t create horrible conditions in prisons. It didn’t create the use of violence and retaliation against people in prisons. It didn’t create poor medical care and lack of access to appropriate treatment. Instead, it merely amplified those problems. These are the effects of mass incarceration generally, and those problems are going to continue to exist long after a vaccine is made available and long after it’s declared that COVID is no longer a global threat.”

Guy Oron is a Seattle-based worker, activist, and journalist. Guy specializes in community-based storytelling and investigative reporting. His writing has been featured in the South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.

Featured image is attributed to the Bureau of Land Management under a Creative Commons 2.0 license