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News >  WA Government

Washington will release hundreds of prisoners to protect them from virus

UPDATED: Tue., April 14, 2020

A man does maintenance work between razor wire-topped fences at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, on Jan. 28, 2016. Inmates at the prison filed a motion Thursday, April 9, 2020, with the Washington state Supreme Court asking it to order Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair to release inmates who are 60 years old or older, those with underlying health conditions and any who are close to their release date. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
A man does maintenance work between razor wire-topped fences at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, on Jan. 28, 2016. Inmates at the prison filed a motion Thursday, April 9, 2020, with the Washington state Supreme Court asking it to order Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair to release inmates who are 60 years old or older, those with underlying health conditions and any who are close to their release date. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

OLYMPIA – Washington will release as many as 950 inmates in the coming days to help protect them from COVID-19 cases that have surfaced at some state prisons.

In a document filed with the state Supreme Court in response to an order late last week to detail its plans to protect the health of inmates, the Corrections Department said it will reduce prison populations with the early release of nonviolent inmates, some of whom are elderly or have health problems that could put them at greater risk from the coronavirus.

Between 600 and 950 inmates will be released “in the coming days,” the court document said. There are about 18,000 inmates at various correctional facilities around the state.

Those released will be inmates who fit a range of criteria, including the following:

    Those serving sentences for nonviolent drug or alcohol offenses and scheduled for release in the next eight months.

    Vulnerable and nonvulnerable inmates serving sentences for nonviolent crimes and scheduled for release in the next 75 days.

    Vulnerable inmates serving sentences for nonviolent crimes and scheduled for release in the next two to six months.

    Vulnerable inmates serving sentences for nonviolent crimes with release dates in six to eight months and who already have an approved release plan.

    Nonviolent individuals on work release who can be released on furlough.

Some individuals will be released with ankle bracelets, Gov. Jay Inslee said.

“There simply is not time to do victim notification and negotiation to comply with the Supreme Court order,” he said during a news conference Monday. “We’re moving as quickly as possible to comply.”

The rules for early release of some inmates met with mixed reactions.

Sen. Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley, called the decision “illogical.”

“The safest place to ensure offenders do not contract COVID-19 is within the confines of DOC correctional facilities,” said Padden, the ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “Putting these inmates back on the street leaves them without housing, a job, access to health care or the counseling they receive in prison.”

While there are no easy answers, the state should notify victims of crime and ensure post-release programs, including treatment and supervision when possible, said Steven Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, a national organization for criminal justice reform, called it a commonsense action that would protect the health and safety of all Washington residents, including inmates, corrections staff, medical professionals and their families.

But the ACLU of Washington called it just a first step that doesn’t eliminate the danger to those incarcerated in the state.

“We urge the governor and Department of Corrections to do more to reduce state prisons populations, which is the only way to follow the advice of public health experts and keep those living and working on our correctional facilities safe,” Jaime Hawk, the organization’s legal strategy director, said in a news release.

On Friday, the court ordered Inslee and Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair “to immediately exercise their authority to take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of … all Department of Corrections inmates in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.” The court required the plan to be submitted Monday, with an update on Friday and oral arguments on April 23 on an appeal by three inmates for releases tied to the danger of the outbreak.

In its filing Monday, the state said eight inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, seven of them at the Monroe Corrections Complex, which was the scene of a demonstration that turned violent last week as inmates had to be quelled with pepper spray and other devices. It also has 50 tests that have been administered to inmates but with no reported results as of Sunday.

The department reported Friday it had 161 inmates in isolation and 912 in quarantine, the court document said. Quarantine numbers were down because some inmates had cleared quarantine last week.

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