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News >  Washington

Walla Walla prison has more than 100 coronavirus cases, state says

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 20, 2020

Prison counselors talk to inmates housed in one high security housing units at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash. Feb. 3, 2009. Prison officials confirmed this week 114 COVID-19 cases among inmates in the penitentiary and 10 among staff.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Prison counselors talk to inmates housed in one high security housing units at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash. Feb. 3, 2009. Prison officials confirmed this week 114 COVID-19 cases among inmates in the penitentiary and 10 among staff. (COLIN MULVANY)

Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla has became the second Washington state prison to report more than 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The Washington Department of Corrections reported this week that it confirmed 114 cases in inmates and 10 cases in prison staff, all in a single unit in the East Complex, state prison spokesperson Janelle Guthrie said.

As of Thursday, 69 people had active symptoms and were in isolation to prevent viral spread, while none had been hospitalized, Guthrie said.

The facility will start serial testing all staff Monday.

The current population of the facility is 2,284, Guthrie said, meaning around 4.9% have tested positive. This case rate is about 3½ times higher than the City of Walla Walla’s case rate.

Walla Walla has a population of about 33,000 and has had 482 confirmed cases in the city as of Thursday, meaning around 1.4% of the population has tested positive, according to census data and the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health.

As soon as the Washington State Penitentiary noticed an uptick in cases in Unit 6 near the end of July, prison staff quarantined the unit to protect the rest of the population, Guthrie said.

Staff tested everyone in the unit to isolate individuals who tested positive. Units 8 and 10 in the East Complex have been on separate movement, so the units are not intermingling, Guthrie said.

The Department of Corrections, since March , has reduced the number of interfacility transfers by nearly 75%, Guthrie said. New intakes must be tested and housed separately from the general population for at least 14 days, even if they have no symptoms.

Cara Lee, a 35-year-old fiancee of an inmate at WSP, worries for her partner because he’s had asthma since childhood.

In some ways, she said, he’s lucky to be isolated in an area of the prison far from the recent outbreak, but that comes with its own challenges.

“It has really affected his mental health,” Lee said.

“He just can’t handle it, honestly.”

He’s in his one-man cell 23 hours a day, she said, with five calls out per week.

While more men are in isolation like this now, the penitentiary is taking other steps to slow the spread, Guthrie said, including increasing access to hand sanitizer and changing traffic flow for staff entering and exiting the building to allow for more social distance.

Lee worries about men who should be tested and aren’t. She said her fiancee had only been tested once in August, at his own request.

The facility holds regular group phone calls with family members of prisoners to explain current procedures dealing with COVID-19. The last call was Aug. 11, Guthrie said.

Like many inmates’ family members, Lee believes prisons will not protect men effectively given crowded conditions, and that solitary confinement is a cruel option, she said. She said she doesn’t believe all inmates are safe to release, but she hopes more will be soon.

“It depends on the offense, and it depends on if they’re trying to change their life,” Lee said. “Do we need to release some of them that are doing better and changing and growing? Yes.”

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