‘They deserve to live:’ Increasing infections worry advocates, families of DOC inmates

A crisis appears to be brewing inside our state’s prison system. Families with loved ones serving sentences inside Washington Department of Corrections facilities are sounding the alarm warning Covid cases are skyrocketing behind the razor wire.

On Thursday, DOC announced the forth pandemic-related death of an inmate. The victim died on December 10 at a local healthcare facility, according to an agency media release, and had been under state custody at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. The agency said it would continue efforts to curb a growing number of infections.

Nancy Savage told Q13 News she recently received a troubling phone call from her son, 39-year-old Steven Hicks. Savage said Hicks was in tears and was worried about what was happening inside the prison.

“He calls me crying saying, ‘Mom I’m scared I’m going to die”, said Savage.

Hicks recently arrived at Stafford Creek, said Savage, where infections have reportedly exploded.

Due to the large number of cases in Grays Harbor County, the local health department announced Wednesday the state would need to assist to attempt contract tracing.

Savage said Hicks tested negative before entering the facility and worries conditions inside the prison could be dangerous.

“They’ve done crimes yes, but they deserve to be treated like human beings,” she said, “They deserve to live.”

According to The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization tracking pandemic related fatalities inside prisons across the country, viral infections are surging among Washington state inmates. The organization said people behind bars are testing positive near180% more often than the external population.

DOC says inmates who show symptoms and test positive will be isolated and their cellmates will enter quarantine. The agency says it is following health guidelines to limit the spread, but inmate advocates worry it might not be enough.

“When it gets in, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Columbia Legal Services Attorney Nick Allen.
“We’re starting to see that now within doc facilities.

Early in the pandemic, Governor Jay Inslee ordered the release of scores of inmates to reduce the prison population. Allen’s organization lost a court battle seeking to release more inmates, but he worries as cases grow so does the danger for inmates and employees.

“This is a significant public health issue,” he said. “The hope is that DOC takes steps necessary to protect folks, but we’re very worried about what’s happened so far.”

“We have tools where we can get people out of there,” said Loren Taylor. She once worked for DOC and now advocates for incarcerated people and their families.

Taylor said families with loved ones currently in state custody are reaching out in desperation seeking help.

“They are scared because the DOC doesn’t have the greatest reputation for health care,” she said.

Savage says her son understands he has a duty to serve his sentence, but she worries the pandemic might become a death penalty behind bars.