Washington State’s Department of Corrections (WDOC) is continuing to transfer prisoners between facilities during COVID-19 outbreaks, a practice that public health experts warn dramatically increases the risk of the virus spreading. It matters to me because as an incarcerated individual, the WDOC is responsible for my health and well-being, and it should matter to you, because prisoners can’t protect themselves from the spread of the virus and the impact of infected prisoners goes far beyond the prison walls.
The practice of transferring prisoners out of facilities with outbreaks has already proven deadly in California, where incarcerated individuals were transferred from Chino and Corcoran to San Quentin. Those transfers led to an extreme outbreak of COVID-19 at San Quentin, resulting in over 2,000 cases only weeks after the transfers. San Quentin now has the largest COVID-19 cluster in the United States, and as of September 10, 27 individuals have died as a result of the virus.
Given what can be learned from California, and the deadly game of musical chairs they played with the lives they are responsible for protecting, it’s extremely disturbing that the Washington Department of Corrections would be willing to take the same risk.
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Like San Quentin, the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) — a facility within the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) where I reside — is over a hundred years old and ill-equipped to deal with a virus now suspected by many researchers to be airborne. WSR has open-bar cell fronts, tight living quarters, narrow passages and staircases through which prisoners and staff are forced to travel, and questionable air ventilation systems given the age of the facility. Quite often air vents can be seen with up to half an inch of dust collected on them — making it impossible for spent air to escape.
Prisoners are being transferred to MCC from Washington Corrections Center (WCC), a receiving center for the WDOC, with active COVID-19 cases. At WCC, prisoners live three to a cell with one individual sleeping on the floor. Those on the floor are only a foot away from the individuals who sleep in the bunks and inches from the toilet all three prisoners share.
Other prisoners are also being transferred to MCC from Coyote Ridge Correctional Center (CRCC), where hundreds of prisoners and staff are confirmed to have the virus. CRCC has recently declared a state of emergency and requested support from the U.S. National Guard to continue operating the facility. Two prisoners have already died at CRCC due to the mishandling of the pandemic by the WDOC.
Since the start of the pandemic, advocates (community organizers, attorneys, public health experts, national organizations, academics and prisoners’ loved ones) have pleaded with the WDOC to stop any form of transfers and provide prisoners with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended supplies to fight the virus.
The best way to help keep prisoners from contracting the virus would be mass releases. Absent those, it is essential to cease transfers and provide incarcerated people with adequate supplies.
Yet WDOC has refused to prioritize the safety of prisoners and continues to cut corners anywhere they can. The majority of their energy is spent trying to convince and mislead the public that they are doing everything in their power to protect prisoners. However, anyone working or living behind these prison walls will tell a very different story.
Not only are prisoners being shipped to the Washington State Reformatory, but WDOC is transferring prisoners to other prisons throughout the state. They have continued to tell anyone who asks that transfers only happen when absolutely necessary, but on two occasions, I have witnessed transfers that were not only unnecessary, but also put the life of the prisoners they chose to transfer at risk.
A few weeks ago, a prisoner from the Twin Rivers Unit at MCC was taken to solitary confinement for getting into a fight with another prisoner. After weeks in solitary, it was decided to transfer him to Walla Walla State Penitentiary (WSP), a 10-hour bus ride from MCC.
Upon learning this, I wondered when it became acceptable to risk a human life over something as simple as a fight? Fights happen in prison, just as they do on college sports teams, military bases, and the many other areas where people are kept in close quarters.
Another prisoner was transferred from WSR to Airway Heights Correctional Center — where there are active COVID-19 cases — to participate in a “rehabilitative” program that he will not be able to complete before his scheduled release. Why would they move a man all the way across the state, away from his family and support network, to take part in a program he can’t finish? Most likely, the answer is money. WDOC needs to maintain a certain number of participants in its programs in order to receive funding. It appears the department is willing to risk prisoners’ lives in order to keep its numbers up.
This is no surprise; the lives of incarcerated people have always been seen as expendable. If the past hasn’t shown this, COVID-19 surely has.
Defense lawyers, criminal legal reform advocates and public health professionals have called for drastically reducing the prison population, even as much as 50 percent, in order to effectively stop the spread of the virus in over-crowded facilities. So far in Washington State, only 950 prisoners have been released — a minimal step that has done little to protect the incarcerated or prison staff. Just as fast as they departed, people were transferred in from county jails to replace them — often before a cell was even cleaned. An exceptional number of highly vulnerable prisoners remain behind prison walls, serving only one single purpose: retribution. Prison sentences have now become death sentences.
These poor decisions are affecting more than just prisoners and those who work within them. The small communities that surround prisons are paying the price as well. Look at the damage caused in Ohio, where Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) is located. After over 80 percent of the prison population tested positive with COVID-19, the surrounding community experienced a horrifying outbreak. Due to the high number of staff that worked at MCI contracting the virus, the community didn’t have a chance. This is the case with many prisons, given they are constructed in rural small towns where many community members work at the prison.
Looking through this lens, we should be able to realize the dangers of these transfers, as they go far beyond prisoners being the only ones who will suffer the consequences. While prisoners’ lives and well-being may seem expendable to the Department of Corrections and others involved, do people feel the same about those who reside in the communities that surround prisons?
If the virus has shown us anything it should be this: We are all in this together. COVID will take whomever is in its path. Every decision made to preserve human life will affect not just that life but the many connected to it. I just hope someone intervenes before my home, WSR, becomes the next San Quentin.