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News >  Washington

Nurse at Coyote Ridge prison describes ‘petri dish’ of ‘inhumane conditions’

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 15, 2020

As chaotic conditions at an Eastern Washington prison have deteriorated, COVID-19-positive inmates with severely restricted access to bathrooms are refusing to drink water, according to one prison nurse’s account.

With clothing changes only once per week and little privacy in the COVID-19 tents outside, sick inmates fear the “humiliation” of soiling their clothes and sitting in filth for days, the nurse wrote.

These are just two of the many concerns Katrina Pinkerton laid out in a July 28 email to 30 Department of Corrections staff about what she described as the department’s “serious neglect” in managing the coronavirus’s spread at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

The DOC confirmed in a statement that Pinkerton worked as a contracted nurse for the prison from late June to mid-July and worked mostly graveyard shifts.

Pinkerton, a Yale School of Nursing graduate, described temporary nurses having no medical information about their patients, staff losing track of where virus-positive inmates were housed, officers using handcuffing maneuvers reserved for punishment to deal with sick inmates and “inhumane conditions” she feared would lead to inmates’ “irreversible psychological trauma.”

She also praised DOC leaders for working despite fatigue to get resources like masks and water bottles in bulk for the facility, writing “you’re doing what you can to deal with an impossible task.”

“No one at any given organization is going to get things just ‘right,’ ” she wrote. “And yet all of us are capable of always striving to do better, no matter how hard the circumstance. Especially when our present efforts fail to help, and even cause harm, to thousands of others.”

A DOC statement from Communications Director Janelle Guthrie said the department takes the allegations in the email “very seriously” and that the department’s health care quality team and other staff plan to meet with the Coyote Ridge health team to review processes and “ensure continuous improvement.”

Two inmates have died from coronavirus at Coyote Ridge and 233 others have tested positive. Victor Bueno, the first of two Coyote Ridge inmates to die from the virus, was about three months away from his expected release date .

Coyote Ridge has had more positive cases than any other Washington prison, the DOC statement said.

As of Aug. 7, seven inmates from Coyote Ridge were “considered to have active COVID-19 symptoms,” and three of them were housed there on that date.

Pinkerton questioned the case numbers. She cited dozens of inconclusive tests, which she said probably represented a “glaring problem” in the prison’s method of sample collection, transport or labeling. She also described harsh conditions for sick inmates that could encourage them to keep quiet about symptoms.

But whether a test is considered inconclusive has “nothing” to do with the quality of the test, according to the DOC. Tests can come back inconclusive when an inmate is developing symptoms or post-symptomatic, the statement said.

The DOC statement said Coyote Ridge had a “very small” number of tests that were compromised in transport from Connell to Seattle, where they were processed, but not the dozens reported by Pinkerton.

Pinkerton wrote that staff often did not know an inmate’s most recent test results. Managing the disease’s spread was impossible, Pinkerton said, due to “mass confusion” among prison staff and “incredibly haphazard tracking” of inmates.

“From the privilege of my unique temporary position on the ground,” Pinkerton wrote, “I was able to clearly see many issues others have been too busy, too physically removed, or too overwhelmed to look at.”

In solitary confinement, officers and nurses “had zero access to consistent, reliable, up-to-date information” about who was there for punishment and who was there for quarantine, she wrote.

Guthrie, the DOC communications director, disputed those claims.

While a temporary nurse’s tasks include monitoring symptoms, taking vital signs, noting symptoms on a form and sending the information to permanent medical staff at the end of each shift, Guthrie said, “these duties did not require providing her access to incarcerated individuals’ medical charts.”

Contract nurses also had access to permanent corrections health care staff if they needed specific medical history, the statement from Guthrie said.

After asking health care staff, Pinkerton said her overall impression was that “it was best” if she avoided performing “even basic nursing tasks” such as listening to heart or lung sounds, she wrote.

Given that officers were performing similar functions, including temperature taking and asking preset questions about symptoms, Pinkerton questioned the department’s decision to hire registered nurses at “high wages” to perform duties at “the level of unlicensed personnel,” such as a nurse’s assistant or lay caregiver.

With no medical histories, nurses devised their own means of record-keeping, filling binders with records of daily temperature checks and asking inmates to talk through their medical history, Pinkerton wrote.

The lack of medical information about patients and other barriers often made it impossible for nurses to carry out “even the most basic of health monitoring,” she wrote. For inmates with COVID-19, she claimed, it also meant harsh treatment.

She wrote that inmates who test positive reported to her that they were suddenly taken to an isolation room and given few details about why, or for how long they would be alone.

In solitary, inmates said they don’t talk to other people or “move their body in the fresh air, for weeks on end,” she wrote. Inmates’ time outside the cell is limited to one shower per week and one call to friends or family per week.

That routine is only broken by medical assessments that involve sitting handcuffed in a cell’s doorway while “disguised” medical personnel in PPE try to check blood pressure and ask questions, Pinkerton wrote.

Inmates have described similar scenes. Janet Gonzalez said her son, who tested positive for the virus at Coyote Ridge, told her via email that he “had to beg” for clean clothes for three weeks. During the same three weeks, he went without medications related to his chronic issues with kidney stones and migraines, she said.

Under quarantine, Gonzalez’ son also described getting 30 minutes outside of his cell every two days, she said. He wrote that he hopes his story gets attention because conditions in quarantine are “insane.”

The tents weren’t much better, according to Gonzalez and the nurse’s letter. Pinkerton said a few men in temporary housing tents reported being in severe pain due to their cots and asked to sleep on the concrete floor instead. She described “swarms of insects,” and three portable toilets to be shared by 50 sick men.

Gonzalez said when her son was held in a tent, he told her 100 men had access to only a few portable toilets and only “when the guards feel like letting them,” she said. Her son described one man there who had turned to urinating in a cup, she said.

The letter and Gonzalez’ description echo earlier reports from inmates who hadn’t yet tested positive in minimum security at Coyote Ridge. There, men described being held in two-man cells with no toilet for up to 36 hours at a time, defecating in coffee cans and urinating in water bottles.

The DOC statement said all inmates have had ready access to bathrooms while respecting social distancing, “with the exception of a brief period early in the response where some individuals in cells without toilets needed to request permission because their cells were locked.”

Coyote Ridge health care professionals worked with Pinkerton throughout her employment to respond to concerns and to address her needs, the statement said.

But the nurse wrote that, while she tried to call attention to many of her concerns to DOC and Coyote Ridge officials, she “received no meaningful responses.”

Pinkerton wrote that she did not know anyone in a prison system, neither officer nor inmate, prior to her contracted work at Coyote Ridge. But after her experience, she found herself having the “surprising thought” that it would be better to let offenders out, with community officers monitoring them.

“The alternative is keeping everyone at CRCC in a petri dish of severe stress, mass confusion, inhumane conditions and circulating illness which then leaks into the community,” Pinkerton wrote.

The Washington Supreme Court in April rejected a lawsuit seeking to force Gov. Jay Inslee to order the release of thousands of people from Washington prisons to protect them from potential exposure to the coronavirus. In a 5-4 decision, a court majority found the emergency petition by Columbia Legal Services had not proved the state is failing in its duties to incarcerated people.

Pinkerton said she recognized that her letter pointed to issues “deeply rooted in a large system” and “lofty ideas” about reducing prison population.

“I venture to guess that some of you receiving this email feel overwhelmed and like you don’t have the power to do anything,” she wrote. “But because lack of meaningful action can be as damaging as intentionally hurtful action, I urge you to share these concerns.”

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