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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Airway Heights prison faces 64 new COVID-19 cases in inmates overnight

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 3, 2020

Airway Heights Corrections Center reported 64 new COVID cases Tuesday, nearly 10 times the number of cases the facility has recorded since the start of the pandemic.

Thirty staff have also tested positive for the virus.

About 10 miles east of the corrections center, Spokane County Jail reported its first cluster of COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, five of 801 inmates had tested positive and so had six employees. Until this week, the jail has only faced isolated cases, said Jared Webley, communications manager for the board of commissioners.

Before its 64 new cases Tuesday, Airway Heights had seemed in the clear, with only seven cases reported since the start of the pandemic. In May, an Office of the Corrections Ombuds report found Airway Heights “appeared clean and orderly,” and ombuds staff saw “nearly 100% compliance with DOC staff wearing face coverings.”

Julie Presson, whose son is an inmate at Airway Heights, said it’s scary to see an outbreak. But she commended Superintendent James Key for managing the crisis well.

“They were the leading prison as far being the model for what they could be doing about COVID,” Presson said.

Presson read ombuds reports related to the COVID-19 outbreak at Coyote Ridge, during which inmates complained of inhumane conditions, and said Airway Heights seemed to take a different approach from the beginning, with Key being “proactive.”

In a recent weekly call with families, Presson said she could “hear relief in his voice” when he announced that the guards were now going to be tested every week.

At Airway Heights, while 71 people have tested positive, 82 inmates are in medical isolation, said Department of Corrections Interim Communications Director Susan Biller in an email to the Spokesman-Review.

The corrections center has established multiple “alternative housing areas” within the facility to house COVID-positive inmates, Biller wrote.

As of Tuesday, the facility was temporarily restricting movement within the main institution to prevent further spread of the virus. Presson, whose son is in minimum security separate from the main facility, said her son has described restricted movement in other units as inmates staying in a cell for most of the day with 30-minute breaks once per day. Presson said her son was under the impression most men had TVs or tablets in their cells.

During the May inspection at Airway Heights, the ombuds saw that few inmates were out of their cells, but one small group outside their cells said they were “having trouble” calling the ombuds number from their unit to make complaints.

Inmates in some facilities may be reluctant to report symptoms of COVID-19 due to fear of solitary confinement, according to other Ombuds reports. In Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, for example, the ombuds wrote that the DOC’s practice of treating those in medical isolation in the same way as those in segregation as punishment was, according to CRCC staff quoted in the ombuds report, “not conducive to healthy recovery.”

In other prisons in Washington, including Monroe and Coyote Ridge, inmates have told their family members that in isolation they received less than one shower per week. The ombuds report on Coyote Ridge noted that a lack of regular showering, contact with family and forms of entertainment in isolation could discourage inmates from reporting symptoms.

Presson said her son hadn’t see these issues in Airway Heights and felt inmates in isolation received good treatment. Based on Presson’s reading of ombuds reports of Coyote Ridge’s handling of its first surge, she said headquarters of the DOC seemed “ignorant and stubborn,” adding that, despite the new cases, the DOC should ask Key about his exemplary management of Airway Heights during the pandemic.

Presson said the worst part of the pandemic for her son so far has been the lack of activities and education available due to social distancing in the facility.

In Spokane, all five COVID-positive inmates are isolated and sick employees are quarantined at home, according to an update from the county.

“So far we had been very lucky. Just by the nature of having people in detention services in a pandemic, we knew it would happen eventually,” Webley said. “We’ve just been knocking on wood for the last eight months.”

The jail has implemented a strict protocol to isolate inmates as they come in, creating a 14-day period before newcomers interact with the rest of the jail’s population, Webley said.

“They’ve been keeping a tight lid on things so far,” Webley said.

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