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Amid some of the fastest outbreaks in state prisons yet, Shelton cases triple in a day

The Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, shown here in this photo from 2005, has a COVID-19 outbreak.  (TED S. WARREN)

Washington on Friday reported some of the steepest increases in new COVID-19 cases the Department of Corrections has recorded since the pandemic began.

The state prison in Shelton – an intake facility that transfers inmates to prisons across the state – recorded 174 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, tripling its case count, according to a memo. Stafford Creek Corrections Center, which had recorded only four COVID cases in inmates as of Friday morning, logged 84 cases later in the day – a 2,000% increase.

In Shelton, the entire prison has been placed on “restricted movement” and sick inmates are filling the main gym, now converted into an “alternate housing unit,” according to the memo signed by Dean Mason, the associate superintendent at Washington State Department of Corrections.

The rapidly growing population of infected inmates follows last week’s Office of Corrections Ombuds report that criticized the Department of Corrections’ response to the outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, during which two people died and over 300 prisoners were infected.

For Loren Taylor, a former Stafford employee, it raises the question: What did the Department of Corrections learn?

“This shouldn’t be happening again,” Taylor said. “We saw what happened before.”

The Coyote Ridge report pointed to two main reasons the virus spread extensively: a delay in testing and quarantining after the first person reported symptoms, and a failure of inmatesto report symptoms, likely due to concerns about conditions in medical isolation.

At Stafford Creek, Taylor believes the virus spread through officers who moved between the infected H1 unit and clean units.

Susan Biller, Department of Corrections spokesperson, confirmed the outbreak began in the H1 unit. That unit went into lockdown Sunday, Biller said.

According to the agency’s case count reporting, staff first tested positive in early November.

Taylor said inmates are noticing staff who are inconsistent in wearing masks.

“The virus isn’t going to fly over the fence or drop from the sky,” Taylor said. “That’s why it’s imperative that staff wear their masks.”

In a report on Stafford from June, Ombuds staff saw a “very high level of compliance” with mask wearing but had “concerns” about social distancing, “particularly amongst staff.”

Jennifer Nicewonger’s father is incarcerated at Shelton and works in the kitchen, she said.

About a week ago, he told her one of his co-workers never came back from “medical,” where inmates go to report health problems. Now, he believes people on his floor have COVID-19 because they’re “really sick,” though they won’t get test results back until Monday, she said.

Shelton’s rising cases are concerning to inmates across the state’s prison system, said Twyla Kill, the wife of an inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex who has transferred through the Shelton prison.

The prison there is the receiving hub for new intakes, Biller said over email.

Kill described the prison as “the Department of Corrections’ overcrowded COVID station.”

During the agency’s response to COVID-19, statewide transfers have been limited to those needed for medical reasons, security concerns or to prevent overcrowding, Biller said. She did not say how many people had transferred in and out of Shelton in recent days, but said “transfers are necessary to prevent overcrowding.”

Prisoners across the state are not being tested weekly, Biller said. Instead, they are tested if they report symptoms or staff identify them as symptomatic. Biller did not list contact tracing as a reason for testing inmates.

Joanna Carns, director of the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, wrote in reports related to Coyote Ridge outbreak that inmates delayed reporting symptoms to avoid harsh conditions in solitary confinement.

This hesitancy might have been a factor in two deaths at Coyote Ridge, she wrote. Both patients waited days to report difficulty breathing, Carns wrote.

Amid the new outbreaks, the Office of the Corrections Ombuds has already received complaints from incarcerated people’s families about conditions in quarantine and isolation, Carns said in an email.

“There is often an immediate loss of communication when people are moved to quarantine and isolation areas, which leads to fears, and the information that does trickle out tends to be concerning – a lack of showers, inability to leave one’s cell, cold food, poor conditions,” Carns said.

Danna Anders, whose boyfriend is incarcerated in Shelton, said inmates on both the G and H tiers have been on a hunger strike.

Carns said she didn’t believe the department was “purposefully dishonest” about conditions during the outbreak, but “receiving accurate, clear, consistent information from DOC has been a concern.”

Carns called this a systemic issue in her 2019 annual report, describing the Department of Corrections as “a soiled bureaucracy,” adding that information from the department is “often conflicting or inaccurate, and there can be great variation between how policy is implemented between facilities.”