Governor considers early release for inmates over coronavirus concerns

SEATTLE -- One night after police had to be called in to calm a major disturbance at Monroe Correctional Complex, the state is simultaneously defending its care of inmates upset over the spread of COVID-19 and considering early release for some nonviolent offenders.

Tensions are running high at Monroe after 11 people, inmates and staff members, became infected with COVID-19. The Department of Corrections said it is screening every worker before entering the facility and will soon provide masks for workers and inmates to wear.

The governor announced he's also looking into releasing some nonviolent inmates to make more room for social distancing and said he'll unveil a plan in the coming days.

"Generally, we're looking at nonviolent offenders who are nearing their appropriate release date, who because of age or health conditions have a higher risk of potentially contracting the disease and having a fatal result," Inslee said.

According to DOC, as of Thursday, 159 inmates across the state are in isolation, showing symptoms of a communicable disease, like the coronavirus. Another 1,237 are in quarantine over concerns they may have been exposed.

Families of inmates are speaking out to Q13 News, claiming conditions in prisons will not allow for safe social distancing and sanitization.

"It's a matter of time before somebody that's asymptomatic comes in there and spread the virus," Christopher Nicewonger said.

His wife Jennifer is serving a 36-month sentence for identity theft at Washington Corrections Center for Women. She is up for early release in July, marking two years in confinement.

Jennifer entered prison pregnant and gave birth to their daughter, Bella, during her sentence. She's part of a unique residential parenting program that allows her to raise her daughter while serving her sentence.

"She's got 80-something days left and for something to happen to her and the baby, she's powerless," Nicewonger said. "She just feels powerless because there's nothing she can do, it's scary."

He said officials have already done a home check and she has an appropriate support system to come home to, which includes her husband and their 3-year-old daughter he's taking care of.

DOC said women in the program are asked to social distance as much as possible and disinfect their own living spaces in between use. The mothers share common spaces like a kitchen to prepare food for their babies.

DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair called the children in the program "precious cargo" and told Q13 News he'd look into whether it would be appropriate to release some of the families housed there.

Other states have already used early release as a way to make more room in prisons to handle the coronavirus outbreak, including Kentucky and Ohio.

"There will be restrictions on them, they're not just going to be sent out the front door with a bus ticket," Carl Filler of Justice Action Network said. "I think that worrying that these folks will not be supervised or that they will be allowed to live their lives just like anyone else, that's very unlikely. I think it's important just to consider that, A) there will be consequences and B) these people have served some sort of time already."