Pending unit closures possibly cause hunger strike for inmates at Connell prison

CONNELL, Wash. — A possible hunger strike inside of Washington State’s largest prison by capacity is causing concerns about the safety of hundreds of inmates — not only because some are allegedly not eating but also because they could get new neighbors.

A worried local woman reached out to KAPP-KVEW but requested to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation against her loved one who’s at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

She said they’ve “decided on a hunger strike” after hearing the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC), who operates the prison, would be closing some units. One of their biggest concerns allegedly is that inmates prone to violence will be housed nearer to minimum-security inmates.

“It’s a way to try to get their point across without any sort of violence or causing any real problems,” she said. “There’s a lot of work that these men put in to change their outlooks, to change the way they react. They take classes, they have jobs, they do everything they can to earn this.”

By this, she means minimum security.

“Men who have been here for years now and haven’t had to worry about fighting with this group or fighting with that group are having all these little concerns about their safety,” she said. “This kind of thing, now it’s become a big issue because you’re putting people with a whole different mindset in with someone else.”

But a spokesperson with the DOC said in a statement to KAPP-KVEW that there are “no plans to move individuals who have been classified for medium-custody facility placement into a minimum custody facility.”

There are plans, however, to close certain units but those have been in place since May and signed by Gov. Inslee. It’s part of a biennial budget requiring the department to reduce prison spending by $80 million dollars over the next two years.

The DOC did acknowledge that “some incarcerated individuals are not pleased about the unit closures” and may have not eaten kitchen meals but they do have access to food items monthly for the commissary.

They also confirmed that Wednesday’s meal delivery was down by 35% from last week “but this could be for any number of reasons, including the decreasing population,” the statement said.

According to the DOC, since Monday, fewer and fewer individuals have been declining meals in the dining hall.

“Prison staff, health services staff, and leadership are out communicating with the population to ensure they understand why the unit closures are occurring,” the statement said.

The woman said that currently “it’s very unsafe because you earn your minimum security.”

“If you spent your time there working to become a different person so that when you leave you don’t go back, the last thing you need when you’re looking at your release dates is to have someone who doesn’t have that same mindset come in,” she said.

The statement sent to KAPP-KVEW from the DOC about the Connell prison reads in full:

The Washington State Department of Corrections has been sharing information about the department wide unit closures since early May. That information is available here. These unit closures and consolidations are not due to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate or staffing issues. The consolidations and closures were included in the 2021-2023 biennial budget, passed by the Legislature, and signed by Governor Inslee, that require the department to reduce prison spending by $80 million over the next two years. Additionally, these moves ensure that Coyote Ridge is able to continue mitigating the transmission of COVID-19 in the facility. Ensuring individuals are not housed in units with shared bathrooms and also reduces the amount of people In the same living quarters. 

Coyote Ridge is one of the facilities experiencing unit closures. While some incarcerated individuals are not pleased about the unit closures, and may not have eaten meals provided by the kitchen, it’s important to note that individuals do continue to have access to up to $375.00 in food items monthly, that they regularly purchase through the prison’s commissary. Because of regular access to commissary food, not everyone always eats meals in the kitchen. We cannot confirm the accuracy of your numbers. This morning’s meal delivery is down about 35% from last week, but this could be for any number of reasons, including the decreasing population. Since Monday, fewer and fewer individuals have been declining meals in the dining hall. Prison staff, health services staff and leadership are out communicating with the population to ensure they understand why the unit closures are occurring.

Regarding your question on individuals in medium custody, the department has no plans to move individuals who have been classified for medium custody facility placement in to a minimum custody facility.

Out of just about 8500 employees in the entire department, only about 4% left department wide due to the mandate. All facilities were able to operate under normal operations. The current vaccination rate for Coyote Ridge Corrections Center is approximately 99.37%, with the remaining minimal percentage of unvaccinated employees out on protected leave.

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