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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Airway Heights inmates believe factory work is driving ‘ridiculous’ outbreak

A fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the Airway Heights Corrections Center in 2018. A former guard was sentenced to two months in federal prison after pleading guilty to smuggling drugs in the compound, while his coconspirators received sentences longer than three years.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Sick inmates at Airway Heights Corrections Center are calling conditions “obscene” and “decaying.” Some have described urine on the floor of a gym where 150 coronavirus-positive inmates are sharing four toilets.

As the prison faces the fastest and largest COVID-19 outbreak in Washington state prisons yet, minimum-security prisoners are still making food in the Washington State Correctional Industries factory for between 90 cents and $1.70 an hour.

Correctional Industries is a state-owned program with “private industry tools” that produces goods, including food, with prison labor to sell mainly to state agencies, according to its website.

Some inmates think that work is part of the reason the virus is spreading rapidly. As of Friday, 792 inmates, more than 40% of the prison’s current population, had tested positive. Twelve days prior, the prison had only seven cases.

“Money’s not worth people’s lives;It really isn’t,” minimum-security inmate Robert Spradlin said over the phone.

Correctional Industries Director Sarah Sytsma declined to be interviewed, directing The Spokesman-Review to Department of Corrections Spokesperson Susan Biller. Other CI employees did not respond to requests for comment.

The DOC is asking for more state resources but they’re scarce amid the pandemic, Biller said.

Starting Monday, laundry services at Airway Heights will be contracted out, Biller said . She said “some components of food production” are contracted out, too, and agency employees are filling some positions typically held by inmates.

Inmates say it appears clear their cheap labor is worth more to staff than their health. Spradlin said he would like to see Correctional Industries “shut down.”

Shawn Fortner, in the minimum-security camp where cases have not been confirmed yet, said officers had “forced” people in camp to work in the main building where positive cases are, according to a message he sent his wife last week.

Fortner said officers told them they’d lose their good time – sentence reductions earned for good behavior – if they refused to go. Officers also threatened they’d lose their firefighting jobs through the Department of Natural Resources and their ability to get out on work release, he said.

Julie Presson’s son, incarcerated in the facility, also heard officers threaten infractions for refusing to work.

Presson’s son said some workers went on strike. His cellmate had worked in the food factory about 15 hours per day for several days, she said.

Biller said there is “no evidence to support this allegation.” Biller added that inmates are not receiving infractions for refusing to work and that headquarters would not support officers threatening infractions.

Office of the Corrections Ombuds director Joanna Carns said she’s heard these concerns from inmates, but the department indicated to her that work for Correctional Industries is voluntary.

Carns has said she doesn’t think the DOC is “purposefully dishonest,” but she pointed to her 2019 annual report, which said information from the agency is often “conflicting or inaccurate” because it is a “siloed bureaucracy.”

Carns said that during the large Coyote Ridge Corrections Center outbreak, inmates believed food production was a viral hot spot because they noticed sick people there first and people from different areas of the prison worked together. Her office was not able to substantiate the claims, she said.

Presson’s son thinks factory work is a major infection factor . Spradlin said all around the minimum-security camp he’s seeing sick inmates “sniffling. You can see the sweat on their brow,” though they haven’t been tested yet.

Spradlin’s cellmate works in food production. He feels he can’t escape the virus because, he said, “it’s coming right into your cell. There’s nothing you can do. It’s there with you.”

Spradlin hasn’t been tested, he said. Presson said her son hasn’t either.

Airway Heights tested all 1,500 inmates in the main facility recently, but the facility is “developing a plan” to test all of minimum security as soon as possible, Biller said.

Spradlin and Presson have the same theory about why they haven’t been tested – if everyone in minimum security tests positive, they won’t have anyone to work.

Presson’s son said his cellmate was working for CI recently when medical staff in PPE gowns escorted a staff member out based on contact tracing, she said. The inmates standing within feet of that staff member did not even have their temperatures checked, he told his mom. They just kept working, she said.

The businessCorrectional Industries’ central promise is to provide “enormous benefits for taxpayers” by making state-bought products cheaper. It also promises to help inmates gain training and work experience before release.

Many inmates, including Spradlin and Presson’s son, are under the impression Correctional Industries is a big money maker. In reality, the business is losing. It lost over a million dollars that year, according to the 2019 annual report.

It also costs taxpayers millions, a 2014 Seattle Times report found. CI hikes up prices to state agencies to make up for losses, the Times reported. The report pointed to markups in furniture prices sold to state agencies and universities, “capitalizing on a law that requires they buy from prison factories.”

In late August, during the Correctional Industries Advisory Committee’s only meeting this year, the director and assistant directors at Correctional Industries pointed out that, despite “a challenging final quarter,” they’d seen an overall increase in sales.

During a section on COVID-19 response, an assistant director discussed procurement of masks, soap and dividers. CI directors did not discuss protections for workers against COVID-19 in the meeting, according to the minutes.

During this meeting, COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing at Coyote Ridge in the largest outbreak the state prison system had seen yet.

Weeks earlier, sick Coyote Ridge inmates were reportedly refusing to drink water because their bathroom access was so severely limited, they feared soiling their clothes, which had not been cleaned in a week.

Now Airway Heights inmates are reporting similar conditions. Tobin Sather in the regional care facility for sicker inmates said they’d had limited access to bathrooms, their heating was not working for a week and men struggling to breathe were being treated with two acetaminophen every six hours. He also said he’d showered twice in 15 days.

Biller denied the first two allegations and said men are required weekly showers. She didn’t address acetaminophen but said treatment “is determined on an individual level in response to symptoms.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Spradlin said. “It’s bad.”

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correctly quote the Office of the Corrections Ombuds 2019 annual report, which called the Department of Corrections a “siloed bureaucracy.”

Maggie Quinlan can be reached at (509) 459-5135 or at