by Joshua Phillips and Meredith Ruff
Governments across the nation are relaxing pandemic restrictions in the face of currently increasing cases and another new variant. Despite these relaxations, there is one place where the State admits that the pandemic is far from over: Washington’s prisons. At this point in the pandemic over 13,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID while inside, which is likely an undercount of actual cases (The average prison population in Washington on a given day is currently between 12,000 and 14,000). This is compared to 20% positive rate overall. There is currently a large outbreak at Stafford Creek Corrections Center; the whole prison is basically locked down.
I am a survivor of the omicron outbreak at Monroe Correctional Complex. I tested positive in February. During the height of omicron, my fellow prisoners and I across the state were subjected to what I would call human rights abuses. We did not receive hot food for days at a time, and the food we got was often inedible. There were times when we did not have access to water. We did not have access to showers or to time outside our cells. One of the guys in my block is disabled and uses a wheelchair. Even after the rest of us were able to shower, he still didn’t get one because the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) didn’t have any staff who could help him. People couldn’t get access to clean sheets or underwear.
People who were unable to work due to outbreaks lost their income: There is no unemployment for Washington’s prison laborers who rely on even the $0.36–$2.70 an hour that they are paid. Those of us who tested positive were removed from our cells and forced into close proximity with others who were positive. Even if we showed no symptoms after the CDC’s recommended quarantine period, we were sometimes not allowed to return to the same cells. If we could go back, some of us found that our rooms had been changed and our things had been taken or gone through. We would sometimes have to double-bunk in a single cell.
DOC was still allowing transfers between prisons during the omicron outbreak; if one prison had more of an outbreak and someone was transferred, that person could bring the disease into a relatively low-case-count prison and infect more people. Meanwhile, DOC was using solitary as a place to quarantine, making people stay in the hole for 14 days, which can be traumatizing. People were missing out on mental health and medical care. People did not get their vaccines on schedule or had trouble accessing a second dose even though this could have prevented a lot of sickness and even some deaths.
Prisons are a public health crisis in the first place. Once disease enters prison, especially with COVID, which often comes from outside staff members, there is no way to stop that disease from blazing through us. There is no real way to social distance on the inside. It is unconscionable that our State continued locking people up even after it became apparent that doing so could lead to death inside. There is no death penalty in Washington, but apparently it’s okay to consign us to death by disease. Abuses run rampant because people on the outside, including those in government, think that prisoners are disposable and that no one cares what happens to them.
Prisoners are humans. Prisoners have rights. Prisoners should be able to access what they need as outbreaks continue. People in prisons across the state are asking the DOC to treat us like people. We are asking for basics including:
- Access to quality medical care and medicine, including quality testing for COVID-19 and tuberculosis by medical staff instead of custody staff, access to COVID-19 vaccines and boosters that are not currently available, and mental health support.
- Previously promised monetary stipends for people who have lost their jobs or are unable to work due to quarantine.
- Restored access to basic living needs, including sufficient time at the showers and on-time deliveries of water and healthy, edible, and properly heated food.
- Restored access to yard time and quality programming.
- Restored access to communication and visits with loved ones, including free make-up visits for any missed due to issues with DOC or COs (corrections officers).
- Restored access to legal resources like law libraries.
- Actions to begin releasing incarcerated people to reduce prison populations during the pandemic, beginning with medically vulnerable and elderly people.
The Washington DOC seems to be waiting for people to stop paying attention so that these abuses get swept under the rug. It will take the support of those of you on the outside to prevent that from happening.
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Joshua Phillips is an advocate of personal accountability and Restorative Justice. He has served over 13 years of a Life Without Parole Sentence. Through his own journey, he has sought to right his past wrongs by adopting truth and transparency, letting his actions today be evidence of his personal growth.
Meredith Ruff has been organizing with No New Washington Prisons since 2019 when the group started to fight the construction of a new “women’s” prison. Meredith is a strong believer that prisons do not solve social problems but only serve racial capitalism by ingraining them further. Meredith graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 2020. She has worked for a local legal nonprofit since.
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