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Medical care tops list of concerns in watchdog report on Washington prison system

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 18, 2019

Inmates train dogs as part of a rehabilitative program at the Airway Heights Corrections Center on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. A new report by the Washington prison system’s official watchdog, the Office of Corrections Ombuds, describes problems with health care, food quality and other concerns at Airway Heights and other facilities across the state. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Inmates train dogs as part of a rehabilitative program at the Airway Heights Corrections Center on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. A new report by the Washington prison system’s official watchdog, the Office of Corrections Ombuds, describes problems with health care, food quality and other concerns at Airway Heights and other facilities across the state. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A man incarcerated at the Airway Heights Corrections Center was disciplined for using the restroom too often to tend to a bladder infection, only to find out later that he had stage 4 prostate cancer.

Another inmate, assigned to a city of Airway Heights work crew, contracted hepatitis C after a correctional officer ordered him to pick up discarded hypodermic needles without the proper protective gear.

Another did not see his wife for more than a year because prison officials deemed her hair extensions a “security threat” and would not allow her to visit.

Those are only a few of the problems the state prison system’s official watchdog has documented over the past year.

The Office of Corrections Ombuds, which opened last year to provide independent oversight of the Department of Corrections, recently released its first comprehensive annual report urging the agency to improve medical and mental health care, food quality, family visitation and programs that rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to re-enter society.

The ombuds office, led by Joanna Carns, received 2,002 prisoner complaints during its first 10 months of operation and reviewed more than half. One in five of those complaints involved poor health care quality or access, according to the report.

“Common issues include scheduling errors, lack of oversight/auditing/quality assurance, medication errors, failure to receive treatment, and failure to both see an outside specialist and for DOC to follow that specialist’s recommendations,” the report states.

Additionally, the ombuds office said it had received “several very disturbing allegations regarding inadequate medical care directly leading to an incarcerated person’s death.”

DOC spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said Friday the agency was preparing to release a detailed response to the ombuds report.

“Consistent with our commitment to operate a safe and humane corrections system and partner with others to transform lives for a better Washington, the Department of Corrections has reviewed the recommendations of the Office of the Corrections Ombuds and will be providing a detailed response soon,” Guthrie said in a statement.

Kim Gunning, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who has sued the DOC over its health care policies, said the ombuds report reflects many of the same problems she has witnessed over the years.

“Folks have a right to adequate medical treatment under the Eighth Amendment, and they’re not receiving that, on the whole,” Gunning said, citing the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Getting poor medical care is not part of the punishment when someone is convicted and sentenced to time in prison,” she said. “When you go to court, no one is saying you serve 20 years in state prison and you get 20 years of poor medical care.”

The DOC houses nearly 17,500 inmates at a dozen facilities across the state.

According to the ombuds report, the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor and the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen generated the highest rate of complaints – about 20 for every 100 incarcerated individuals. Airway Heights generated about 10 complaints for every 100 people housed in the facility.

The DOC has grappled with several major challenges.

Early this year, the agency identified a software problem and launched a review of up to 3,500 sentences after learning that at least a dozen inmates had been incarcerated too long or released too early.

The Seattle Times has reported on the deaths of seven inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex, as well as others who suffered due to inadequate medical care – problems that led to the firing of the prison’s medical director in April.

And thousands of inmates have joined hunger strikes in some facilities in recent years, protesting the quality of their meals, including carb-heavy “breakfast boats” produced by inmates at Airway Heights.

The ombuds report says the DOC “should create better access to healthy food, including prioritizing fresh produce, less processed products and quality protein, through greater utilization of incarcerated workers who can then gain skills for reentry success.” The ombuds office also has recognized the DOC for making progress toward that goal by serving more hot meals and adjusting its menus based on prisoner feedback.

The ombuds office has intervened with various degrees of success for some inmates who submitted complaints.

When an Airway Heights inmate got in trouble for using the restroom during a prisoner head count, he complained to the ombuds office, but the DOC initially refused to overturn his infractions, saying his bladder infection medication was sufficient and he should not have needed ice or extra restroom time.

Then the man was found to have prostate cancer, and the agency reversed its decision. The ombuds office is still looking into the delayed diagnosis.

Another Airway Heights inmate had both of his hearing aids stolen. At first, the DOC replaced only one, so he could hardly hear when correctional officers spoke to him – a safety issue, according to the ombuds report. The agency gave him a second hearing aid after the ombuds office stepped in.

The ombuds office also got the DOC to restore visitation rights for a woman who had spent more than a year trying to visit her husband at Airway Heights. The agency had suspended those rights indefinitely because her hair extensions presented a “security threat” and because she had shown her husband a tattoo on her thigh during one visit, according to the ombuds report.

Other problems have been more serious, prompting the ombuds office to conduct its own investigations.

Last November, for example, the office received a complaint from an inmate who had been stuck by a dirty needle while picking up trash at a dump site in Airway Heights.

In a separate report documenting its investigation, the ombuds office said the man was rushed back to the Airway Heights prison for medical attention, but he was given the wrong dose of prophylactic medication and later tested positive for hepatitis C.

The man had been wearing gardening gloves, which provided inadequate protection, when the correctional officer directed him to pick up discarded needles, according to the report.

Prison officials acted quickly to outfit work crews with tougher gloves, sharps containers and handheld grabbing tools, according to the report. But they stalled for months after the inmate filed grievances and did not arrange for him to see an outside doctor after his release, the report states.

In response, the DOC assembled a task force to review the agency’s grievance procedures and submit a report to Secretary Stephen Sinclair by the end of the year.

In its annual report, the ombuds office recommends many systemic changes to the DOC. Among them, it proposes updating the DOC’s mission statement and renaming the agency the Department of Rehabilitation and Reentry.

“While individual leaders in DOC often verbally promote a progressive ideal, they are impeded by the entire construct of the department itself, which perpetuates the paradigm that incarcerated individuals are felons who cannot be trusted, let alone changed,” the report states. “By reinforcing the person’s criminal status, DOC fails to facilitate the personal transformation that is ultimately what will truly promote a successful reentry and improve public safety through the reduction of future victims.”

Gunning, the attorney, agreed.

“Why is punishment the first place that we go as a society?” she asked. “Why can there not be more of a focus on restorative justice? On alternative sentencing? On ways that people can stay in the community and not have to be locked up? That obviously is not going to happen overnight. But that is part of the cultural shift that needs to happen.”

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