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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Department of Corrections disputes prisoners’ claims about conditions, announces COVID-19 bulletin

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 25, 2020

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)

On Christmas Day, more than 2,000 Washington prisoners were in isolation due to COVID-19 while another 2,800 were quarantined, according to the Department of Corrections’ count.

At Airway Heights Corrections Center, 70% of the prison’s population had tested positive, with most cases being confirmed in December. One Airway Heights prisoner died from COVID-19 last week.

Since the outbreak’s onset at Airway Heights, 30 COVID-19- positive prisoners have been transported to a hospital, although those transfers were not necessarily due to COVID-19, said Department of Corrections spokesperson Rachel Ericson over email Thursday.

While inmates have complained of “ridiculous” conditions – limited access to bathrooms and showers along with minimal medical care – the Department of Corrections disputed many of those claims on Christmas Eve.

In early December, inmate Tobin Sather described a “decaying” situation in the Regional Care Facility, where he was housed. The facility is designated for sicker patients not ill enough to be hospitalized. He said unusable toilets created long waits to relieve himself in the unit.

Since then, Sather said he was transferred to a unit where he did not receive any medical attention for seven days. The day of his transfer, he’d complained about lack of access to toilets, he said. He believes staff moved him in retaliation, he said.

Airway Heights prisoners, including Shawn Fortner and Nicholas J. Cencich, along with family members of inmates, including Julie Presson, Michelle Kuhn, Rachel Bisbee and Mattlani Walker, have described similar conditions.

The Department of Corrections in an email on Christmas Eve said several of Sather’s complaints included “inaccuracies,” saying his statements “need clarification and correction.”

Sather described about 150 men sharing a handful of toilets in the gym. Kuhn’s fiancé, housed in the gym, described the same issue, estimating about 200 men shared two working toilets, Kuhn said.

Ericson said Sather had never stayed in the gym as of Christmas Eve and men in the gym have access to four toilets, six portable bathrooms and one urinal.

Sather also described getting only two showers in 15 days. Kuhn and Bisbee described their partners at Airway Heights experiencing days-long shower delays without a change of clothes, as did prisoner Shawn Fortner.

Ericson said the department’s COVID-19 protocols have been continuously reviewed and updated, but as of Dec. 24, the first seven days of medical isolation “are to remain highly restricted movement to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.”

After seven days, prisoners should get showers per usual, Ericson said.

On Dec. 8, Sather described having, “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.”

Ericson said incarcerated people at Airway Heights should have access to running water and basins, even when they are not allowed showers during their first week of quarantine. They also get clean clothes and linens “on a regular basis” regardless of where they are housed, she said.

According to facility records, Sather had not raised any concerns nor filed any resolution requests about laundry as of Christmas Eve, she said.

Finally, the Department of Corrections pointed to Sather’s statement about not receiving medical care as inaccurate. Sather said his previous care in the Regional Care Facility included regular vitals checks or acetaminophen, which he did not get for a week after his transfer to another unit.

Ericson said the department could not provide protected medical information about a prisoner, but patients isolated with COVID-19 will have nursing assessments and vital signs checked at least every shift, she said.

In addition to rebuttals of Sather’s claims, the department also announced on Christmas Eve the start of a COVID-19 bulletin to be released on business days. The first bulletin included a summary of COVID counts and information about mental health care and bathroom access at Airway Heights.

The bulletin begins with a subsection called “current status.”

”Corrections’ staff continue to work extended hours in response to COVID-19,” the beginning of the bulletin reads. “In acknowledgement of their dedication, sacrifice, and commitment; staff recognition groups at facilities across the state have been giving staff treats, snacks, coffee, and/or other forms of appreciation.”

Airway Heights prisoner Cencich, in a letter last week addressing the outbreak, said he is “greatly concerned,” especially for men housed in the gym there. Cencich has tested positive for COVID-19.

He wrote that some officers, who were not wearing masks, could have brought the virus in, though he believes transfers of inmates around the prison have driven the spread. He said since the first round of COVID testing, he’d been transferred out of his “home” cell to two other cells, with three different cellmates.

“This is inexcusable and downright stupid,” Cencich wrote.

Cencich wrote that because they allowed transfers and did not release a large number of prisoners, he believed the department and Gov. Jay Inslee acted with, “negligence, harming the inmates in their care and jeopardizing their staff and health care workers who are trying to do their best.”

As of Christmas Eve, 155 staff members out of 754 at Airway Heights had tested positive and 85 had recovered from the virus, Ericson said.

Cencich and Robert Spradlin, who was released last week, pointed to a transfer of COVID-positive inmates to Airway Heights as a potential start of the outbreak.

The beginning of the outbreak is “speculative,” Ericson said. COVID-19-positive people were transferred to Airway Heights, Ericson said, but they were “appropriately housed in medical isolation and were not housed with healthy individuals.”

The department “takes the health and safety of the incarcerated individuals in the state’s custody very seriously,” Ericson said.

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