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‘Beyond bizarre’: Airway Heights inmates describe poor conditions amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases

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

The Airway Heights Corrections Center is in the midst of the fastest and largest COVID-19 outbreak Washington state prisons have recorded.

Michelle Kuhn said her fiancé is one of 146 COVID-positive men housed in the prison’s gym, according to the department’s count.

There are four toilets for those men, the agency reported, leading to what Kuhn claimed was urine on the gym floor. The agency denies this.

Susan Biller, Department of Corrections spokesperson, wrote in an email that there’s no Wi-Fi in the gym. This means inmates cannot use their corrections-approved messaging service, JPAY, to communicate with families.

In one of their two brief calls this week, Kuhn said her fiancé sounded very sick. She said he flatly told her, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”

As of Thursday, 779 inmates, or 41% of the prison’s population, have tested positive. On Nov. 30, the prison had seven cases.

“How many people gotta get sick and how many people have to die for them to be held accountable?” Kuhn asked.

Inmates say they’re worried food production in the prison’s food factory, in the main building where the DOC has recorded hundreds of COVID cases, is partially driving the outbreak.

The majority of Airway Heights’ normal production is not operational due to worker shortages, Biller said. Laundry and food manufacturing continue, she said.

Tara Lee, spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, said the governor is in regular contact with Secretary of Department of Corrections Stephen Sinclair and Joanna Carns, director of the Office of Corrections Ombuds. She pointed to the governor’s April orders to release prisoners, but did not answer if he’s specifically considering another such action.

Biller said the National Guard is not coming to help.

Airway Heights tested all inmates, about 1,500, in the main facility last week, Biller said. Otherwise, they’re testing based on inmates reporting symptoms, she said.

Inmate Robert Spradlin said minimum-security prisoners are not getting tested because they’re not reporting symptoms. And they’re not reporting their symptoms because they don’t want to live in the poor conditions sick inmates do, he said.

Rachel Bisby’s husband is 58 and diabetic, and has been “horribly, horribly sick” for two weeks after testing positive, she said. In the past seven days, he’s only left his cell to use the bathroom. He hasn’t showered or used a phone.

Julie Presson, whose son is in minimum security, said this week he told her a diabetic person on his floor is experiencing blood sugar problems because of the irregular times between meals.

“The situation at Airway is beyond bizarre,” Presson said. “At first, (superintendent James Key) was doing everything he could to try to control this. It was almost like last week everything flipped-flopped and it was being done the same way they did it at Coyote Ridge.”

Coyote Ridge Corrections Center had the largest outbreak in the state’s prisons prior to Airway Heights. An ombuds report pointed to poor conditions for sick prisoners preventing inmates from self-reporting symptoms as a crucial problem.

Spradlin is one week away from release. He said he’s been struggling to sleep, worrying that he won’t be able to leave if cases swell up in his area of the prison.

His cellmate is still working in the main building making prison food. Spradlin said all around the minimum security camp he’s seeing sick inmates “sniffling. You can see the sweat on their brow.”

“You can’t run from it, you can’t hide from it,” Spradlin said. “You’re in a cell and it’s coming right into your cell. There’s nothing you can do. It’s there with you.”

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