WA prison officials address COVID-19 concerns as families of inmates wait for more answers

Washington prisons have experienced multiple COVID-19 outbreaks but state officials claim cases are now controlled and family visitations could be opened soon.

Officials with the Washington Department of Corrections held their first press conference in the past 6 months to discuss ongoing safety measures inside prisons. Secretary Stephen Sinclair said the department hasn’t been perfect but they’ve learned along the way.

“We’ve been responsive and been willing to adapt,” Sinclair said, “We’ve been fighting really, really hard to prevent any COVID deaths in the system just like we are with outbreaks. Unfortunately we know that there are going to be additional outbreaks but our goal is to be quick and responsive to those outbreaks with effective protocols.”

According to the DOC website, more than 400 inmates and more than 100 employees have contracted COVID-19. Secretary Sinclair said only 28 cases are still active.

Covid Cases Prisons

The almost hour long virtual press conference highlighted many of the department’s successes during the fight against the virus. Emergency operations employees discussed how quickly the search and creation of personal protective equipment was started. Inmates were making PPE when the equipment was difficult to find at the start of the pandemic. Employees also discussed multiple protocols that were put in place. Widespread screenings have been established for prison employees and inmates including temperature checks and symptom questions. Employees have been tested regularly according to the press conference and a special team was put in place to conduct contact tracing within facilties. Arminda Svoboda-Miller is part of the WA DOC’s Unified Command and said they learned some things early on but there are some areas the department is still working on.

“We’re learning as we respond to COVID-19 that it takes a multiple tool to approach to help mitigate the spread or transmission of COVID,” she said, “I think what the biggest thing that we’re learning out of this is no one facility is like the other. The staff numbers are different. The incarcerated individuals are different. So we have to make adjustments contextually to each one of those facilities and interactions. ”

Svoboda-Miller also mentioned the extended administrative leave policy for staff members. If an employee identifies having COVID-19 symptoms they are given extra time to see a medical professional, rest at home and recover. They then experience a second screening process that clears them for work.

Family members of incarcerated individuals watched Thursday’s press conference and questioned many of the claims officials were making. Mattlani Walker is an advocate for family members of incarcerated individuals and said much of what officials said isn’t true.

“I think the biggest thing for families of the incarcerated is the fear of the unknown,” Walker said, “We don’t have a date of when we will be able to see our loved ones again.”

During the press conference, Secretary Sinclair said multiple times how important family interaction for inmates is.

“Family connection is vital to effective reentry and incredibly important to the agency, not just for the reentry purpose, but also to keep the incarcerated individuals engaged and active with their families throughout this crisis,” he said.

Walker said she doesn’t believe visitations of any kind will soon be DOC’s number one priority because of the way family members have been treated throughout the pandemic.

“I can’t believe in that statement because of the fact that  families have been trying to have a meeting with the secretary of corrections and we’ve been waiting seven weeks for a response,” Walker said,  “The three things that we asked for as families is just transparency, accountability, and consistency.”

Walker said since the pandemic started the department hasn’t had a consistent plan of how to handle the outbreaks. She said families were understanding of the unprecedented event at first, but soon the conditions inside prisons were becoming inhumane with inmates forced to urinate inside bottles and cans because they were in isolation. She said at this point, the department should already have a plan in place for visitations.

“You’ve got the churches that are now opening and you’ve got the nursing homes that are opening,” she said.

DOC officials said in the press conference that they are waiting for more data to enact a plan for visitations and they don’t want to take any chances of the virus spreading. Secretary Sinclair’s ending comments during the conference were that when the pieces, protocols and barriers are in place to open safely, they will, but safety remains their number one priority. Walker said family members want a dialogue with officials, which they don’t have right now. She said families don’t want to attack officials for the situation, just collaborate on how best to handle the situation. She said families have a lot of questions, like why inmates can safely be transferred between facilities but family members can’t go through the same screening process to see a loved one.

“They’re out in the public or they’re coming into the facilities as well, and they’re still transferring to all their 12 prisons,” Walker said, “So why are we as families being punished to see our loved ones? A lot of us don’t feel that that is fair.”

Svoboda-Miller discussed inmate transfers Thursday saying they have attempted to limit the frequency of transfers and they will not transfer an inmate if they are sick, but it’s something the DOC still has to do.

“The law does not allow us to not continue to take individuals in as they come into our jurisdiction,” she said, “We still have individuals that are coming from county jails, although we’ve been able to reduce the amount of transports that come in on a weekly basis to a biweekly. They’re still coming into our facilities and we still need to manage that population. What we have done is in those areas of outbreak, we’ve had clinical review to determine when it’s appropriate to go ahead and conduct transfers of individuals from one facility to another.”

The department didn’t give many specific details on how in-person visitations will occur or when this is likely to happen. Walker said those lack of details don’t make her optimistic that the visitations will start anytime soon.

“We want transparent answers so that we can move on with our lives too.”