Under the watchful eyes of gun towers above us, prisoners are ushered through the turnstile to enter the yard and then some of us are called over to receive a pat search. The guards are eager to use this method, which had only been reinstated a few hours earlier. No more social distancing; guards stood merely feet from each other while running their gloved hands down prisoners’ bodies. They refused to change gloves before groping their next victim.
“I couldn’t believe we were getting searched. How can this line up with CDC guidelines? I mean, [the Department of Corrections (DOC)] has continued to weaponize those guidelines against us when they wanna bully prisoners, and now when those guidelines don’t serve their interest, they throw them out the window,” said prisoner Robert Entel. “Honestly, it’s just another clear demonstration [that the] DOC doesn’t care about us in the least. To know these guards will touch me before my family, it’s annoying, especially since it was a guard that gave me COVID in December.”
The practice of searching prisoners and their cells in Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) was suspended in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of spreading the virus from prison guards to prisoners. However, even though many prisoners and guards have yet to be fully vaccinated (with a high rate of refusal among guards), the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) has decided to prioritize reinstating searches of prisoners and their living spaces, regardless of the risk to their health.
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Prisoners were first informed of the return of these invasive practices through a memo released on April 27, 2021, by WDOC Assistant Secretary of Prisons Division Robert Herzog. The memo claimed that, “due to significant increases in the discovery of intoxicated individuals, alcohol (pruno), drugs and weapons … the [DOC] will resume routine searches effective immediately.”
Making the reinstatement of searches immediate, the WDOC was able to skirt feedback from legislators, prisoners and their loved ones, which had delayed the reinstatement they attempted back in November 2020. At that time, the WDOC claimed the reinstatement was due to an uptick in “dirty” urinalysis tests — suggesting the use of drugs in the prison was on the rise. The administration said searches must resume to protect the “safety and security” of the prison and those held within it. But what about the safety of the human lives of those who reside behind prison walls? Is our health and safety secondary to their false sense of “security?”
Additionally, for our “security,” all contact visits and the majority of community-sponsored programs have been canceled since March 2020. While WDOC has reinstated searches, it’s holding firm in “protecting” prisoners by continuing to forbid all contact visits with loved ones and the majority of educational and betterment programs. These are things that matter most to prisoners’ health and well-being, but they are off the table.
The first contact for prisoners won’t come from the warm embrace of our loved ones at visits, but from the cold gloved hands of our oppressors — prison guards.
Furthermore, only prison guards and administrators are able to come and go from the facility, so many of us are wondering where the drugs and contraband they are “protecting us from” are coming from? When drugs are discovered inside prisons, they’re often brought in by officers themselves.
Many of us struggle with the fact that our safety is taking a backseat — again — to this false sense of security, something that has continued to happen over and over during the pandemic. One prisoner, who doesn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation, said, “Why should my well-being be put at risk because prison guards chose to bring drugs and contraband into the prison? I am tired of having my life put in danger because of their poor choices.” Many prisoners share his concerns.
From the very start of the pandemic, the WDOC has continued to put prisoners’ safety on a back burner. Guards had to be mandated by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to wear masks, a mandate that guards and their unions fought every step of the way. Even worse, prisoners were not issued masks until dozens of complaints were filed and some of the incarcerated people had already tested positive for the virus. Social distancing was foregone while prisoners were doubled and tripled up in tiny cells, which is still happening today across the state. The reinstatement of searches is a clear display that our health and safety isn’t a top priority to the WDOC.
The April 2021 memo went on to claim, “[T]he Department is committed to minimizing the chances of COVID-19 transmission,” yet, WDOC disregards important CDC guidelines related to keeping people safe from transmission of the virus. Their false claim proved to be far from the truth. Prisoner Jaarso Abdi was exiting the prison yard and returning to his living unit when he was instructed by guards conducting pat searches to stand for search. He followed the directive but was surprised when he was asked to perform a task that would put his safety at high risk. “The guard told me to turn around, face him, pull down my mask, and say ‘aah.’ I was shocked … but what could I say? If I didn’t follow what he said, I would probably get taken to solitary confinement.”
Some prisoners have even said they plan to skip meals and the yard, in an effort to dodge getting pat- or strip-searched. One told me, “It’s not that I have anything to hide, I just wanna be safe. I already got the virus once because of their neglect; I don’t want it again. Last time I was forced to spend weeks in solitary, because they [guards] got me sick, now they want to put me at risk again. Meals and yard aren’t that important; I can live on Top Ramen if I have to.”
Prisoners are worried that reinstated searches will allow guards to spread COVID-19 throughout the prison — again. It would follow old, established patterns that when guards are able to wield a sword of punishment, especially one cloaked under the guise of “security,” they will surely abuse it. Knowing there is no way to stop the WDOC from searching prisoners and their spaces, the people I live with are bracing for the next large outbreak and the worst possible outcome — lying in solitary confinement on a thin pad fighting off a possibly life-ending virus.
“I feel like a rubber duck floating in a tank of sharks, no ability to protect myself,” one prisoner told me. “I’m just surviving at the mercy of those that struggle to recognize me as a human being.”