SEATTLE -- Hundreds of inmates have moved out of Washington state prisons as the new coronavirus continues to spread in facilities across the state and hundreds more are on lists for possible release, officials said Wednesday.
At least 21 Department of Corrections employees and 13 offenders have tested positive for COVID-19, with most cases occurring at the Monroe Corrections Complex. That prison has seven workers and 13 offenders with the disease.
Monroe inmates filed an emergency motion asking the Washington Supreme Court to force Gov. Jan Inslee and Secretary Stephen Sinclair to release inmates who were most vulnerable to the deadly disease. An initial order required the state to take steps to protect the health of the incarcerated population.
The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the case on Thursday. For the first time, the hearing will be conducted using remote technology. They plan to hear arguments over Zoom, officials said. The court plans to use this technology for all oral arguments starting in May.
After the justices issued their initial order to protect inmates, Inslee and Sinclair announced plans to release 650 to 950 inmates who were not violent offenders and were close to the end of their prison terms.
About 41 inmates received work release furloughs last week. They included people who were charged with forgery, burglary, car theft, assault and drug charges. The list is updated each day as more people are let out.
As of Tuesday, the governor had commuted the sentences of 293 prisoners whose release day was within 60 days. Their offenses included car theft, illegal possession of a firearm and drug charges. By the end of Wednesday, the number will be higher.
Another 600 inmates are being considered for the department's “rapid re-entry” program, said Jeremy Barclay, a spokesman for the agency. This program allows the offender to move into the community with electronic monitoring.
Lawyers for the Monroe inmates are asking the Supreme Court to expand their emergency motion to include all offenders held in state institutions. They also want the inmates to be tested for COVID-19.
The corrections department told the court that it has taken a list of measures designed to protect both staff and inmates, including mandatory face coverings and wall-mounted hand-sanitizer dispensers.
They also continue to look for ways to reduce the prison population, which will allow the inmates who remain to have more space for social distancing.