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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

1 in 3 Airway Heights prisoners have COVID-19; conditions called obscene

The Airway Heights Corrections Center has reported 70% of inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.  (State of Washington)

One in three prisoners at Airway Heights Corrections Center has COVID-19 and inmates say conditions are past the breaking point.

The Department of Corrections reported 671 confirmed cases Tuesday, in a population of 1,900 inmates. Last week, the prison had seven cases.

“The humanity of what’s going on here is decaying faster and faster every day,” said Tobin Sather, one of 21 inmates in the Regional Care Facility for sicker men who aren’t deemed sick enough to be hospitalized.

He’s had two showers in the past 15 days. He hasn’t had a single change of clothes and he can’t clean his own in the facility.

For six days, the room’s temperature was hovering around 55 degrees after the heating system broke down, Sather said.

A trailer outside the facility where Sather can access a toilet with an officer’s permission was out of order twice last week, once for a 4-hour period, Sather said.

Now, the prison’s gym is filled with about 150 sick men, Sather said, many of whom are experiencing diarrhea among other COVID-19 symptoms. The gym has only two toilets and one shower, Sather said.

“That’s obscene,” Sather said. “No clean clothes, no way of cleaning our clothes, limited access to showers if at all, not being able to just wash our bodies, generally not being able to use the restroom – those would be my biggest concerns. Everything else we can live with or a little adaptation can figure out.”

Department of Corrections spokesperson Susan Biller did not respond to requests for comment.

Sather’s symptoms have been difficult. He had to be transported to MultiCare Deaconess Hospital in Spokane last week due to a potential blood clot in his swollen legs. An ultrasound ruled out a clot, but he said fluid is still building up in his legs.

When asked if anyone should be hospitalized who isn’t, he said two men in his room are struggling to breathe. Though he said medical staff haven’t neglected anyone, all patients are getting the same treatment of two acetaminophen every six hours and fluids.

Sather’s wife said she was concerned the men hadn’t received a hot meal in days. Sather said it was the least of his worries.

“It’s never going to be good, but you’ll never hear me complain about it because I made poor choices and they sent me to prison,” Sather said. “I’m more concerned about the health and welfare of an individual than my comfort. I can deal without comfort. Dealing with the basics of humanity is more my concern.”

In the main population, DeeDee Blevins said her son Matthew Woods, 32, has not left his cell for two days. She said this week an officer directly told her son, “I hope you die.”

“My son doesn’t have a spleen. If he catches COVID, there’s a chance I’m going to lose my son,” Blevins said. “He’s 69 days short of coming home.”

Sather said corrections officers are obviously tired and overwhelmed. About 50 have tested positive for the virus.

Staffing shortages are such that Jan Chrey’s son, 60-year-old Jeff Ormiston, has been asked everyday if he’s willing to work in the COVID wards caring for inmates. Ormiston is in the minimum security camp for a misdemeanor theft offense.

“What in the world are they going to do?” Chrey said. “You can’t lock people up and make them die.”