SEATTLE - Families with loved ones serving prison sentences in our state’s correctional facilities are sounding the alarm, worried the system is not prepared to keep inmates safe from COVID-19.
They also demand the prison’s populations be cut in half and the state’s department of corrections budget slashed.
While DOC insists it is working with health officials to keep inmates and staffers safe and follows sanitation, screening and separation protocols, families with loved ones still behind bars worry those efforts aren’t enough.
“I fear I’m going to lose her,” said Dean Rhodes.
Cynthia Miller, Rhodes’ wife, has been in state prison since 2016 for assault.
He says her health is failing. She has suffered a shoulder injury and earlier health issues including an autoimmune disorder leave her especially susceptible to the coronavirus.
“If she’s not seen by a specialist, I’m afraid that she’s not going to make it,” he said.
“His mental health is deteriorating,” said Shandra Eknes.
Shandra’s younger brother Harold is also behind bars serving a sentence for assault and robbery. She said he was injured by DOC officers because he neglected to wear a mask and his injuries and punishment for the infraction were severe.
“He can only leave his cell an hour a day,” he said, adding Harold has been in solitary confinement for nearly 60 days. to shower or make phone calls. 58 days he’s been in solitary.
“We are always the ones having to fight for the lives for our loved ones,” added Rose Harriot who has siblings also currently incarcerated.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Inslee allowed the release of more than 1,000 inmates across the state. Many were older, medically vulnerable, or were close to completing their sentence but many more remained behind bars.
So far two inmates have died from COVID-19, hundreds more have tested positive and so have many staffers.
DOC insists inmates who test positive for the virus are isolated, and quarantine measures are taken, but advocates for reform and those who have loved ones still inside worry the state agency and Inslee should do more to reduce the risk of the virus’ spread.
“This is a death sentence for a lot of people,” said Harriot.
“Treatment with her started to decline almost instantly,” Rhodes said, describing the drastic change in medical care his wife received once she was placed under DOC’s care.
Those who have loved ones paying their debt to society in our state’s prisons worry the price to be paid could prove fatal. Advocates worry BIPOC inmates will face the brunt of an unjust system.
A request for comment from Governor Inslee’s communications team was not immediately returned.
DOC sent a statement after Q13 News broadcast this story.
The Department of Corrections takes its responsibility to protect the health and safety of those in its care very seriously. The Department has consistently demonstrated its commitment by developing and regularly updating health services guidelines consistent with the Washington Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control guidance, requiring screening of anyone who enters its facilities, mandating face masks for all employees and incarcerated individuals as well as appropriate personal protective gear, frequent handwashing and social distancing.
The Department has engaged in regular informational calls with the statewide and local family councils to hear concerns and provide information. Further, the Department has established specific protocols for the care of special populations.
Since the pandemic began, Washington’s total and partial confinement populations have dropped from 17,232 in February 2020 to 15,857 by June 2020, including 422 individuals released on emergency commutation, 528 transferred to RRE, and 66 who were furloughed (1,016 in total). Additionally, in partnership with the overall criminal justice system, transfers into the state correctional system facilities have slowed.
The Department has tested 4,423 individuals with 424 COVID-19 positive results. At this time, of the 424 positive results, 344 individuals have recovered.
As the Washington State Supreme Court recognized in Colvin v. Inslee, “The Department has implemented a multifaceted strategy designed to protect offenders housed at various facilities, increasing those protections as more information becomes available about the virus and its risks.”
We understand families’ concerns and continue to work within our authority to protect the health and safety of our incarcerated population and staff while ensuring adequate security for all.