Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Night 38° Clear
News >  Washington

Second Washington corrections officer dies due to COVID-19 as prisons begin vaccine rollout

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 31, 2020

A June 4, 2018 aerial photo of the Airway Heights Correctional Center near Spokane. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (JESSE TINSLEY)
A June 4, 2018 aerial photo of the Airway Heights Correctional Center near Spokane. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (JESSE TINSLEY)

After beginning vaccinations in state prisons this week and as prisoners continue to point to poor conditions, the Department of Corrections announced on New Year’s Eve the second COVID-related death of a corrections officer.

Officer David A. Christensen, one of 63 Stafford Creek Corrections Center staff members who have tested positive for the virus, died Tuesday.

As of Monday, the agency had received limited doses of COVID-19 vaccines that are being distributed according to the state’s Phase 1a plan. Elderly prisoners and corrections officers who work with them are some of the first on the priority list for the department, said Rachel Ericson, deputy communications director for the agency.

An Office of the Corrections Ombuds report published Tuesday found that, by mid-December, corrections officers were tired.During a walk-through at Airway Heights Corrections Center, where more than 70% of the prison population and 170 staff have tested positive for COVID-19, the ombuds office found staff members were working very long hours, often many days in a row.

Many were working outside of their normal job description and were “flexible and creative” in completing tasks, according to the report.

After the Department of Corrections disputed a prisoner’s claims about lack of access to showers, toilets and clean clothes at Airway Heights last week, the ombuds report found many prisoners were concerned about the same issues.

Prisoners reported concerns about being moved to different units, cold and delayed meal delivery, delays in receiving clean laundry, “frustration” about showers and phone access, confusion about when or whether they’d receive COVID test results and a “desire for more clear and consistent messaging,” the report said.

The report described “many” prisoners complaining about being threatened with infractions at the start of the outbreak for refusing to work. Airway Heights prisoner Shawn Fortner said in early December that people in minimum security were being “forced” to work despite the virus’ vast spread.

Department of Corrections staff denied these accusations, the OCO report said.

Prisoners had also complained about lack of access to toilets and urine on the floor in the gym, where COVID-positive men were housed. Viewed through windows, the gym “appeared somewhat calm and there were no obvious signs of trash or human waste on the floor,” the Ombuds reported.

The Recreation Building alternate housing area originally used as a medical isolation unit is now a recovery unit, according to Thursday’s bulletin from the department.

Staff and prisoners in the Sage East Unit at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center about an hour and half southwest of Spokane will be some of the first to receive vaccines. The long-term care unit houses fewer than 40 geriatric prisoners, Ericson said. About 20 other long-term care patients with similar needs who cannot reside in Sage East will also get the vaccine, according to the bulletin.

Officers working in the state’s two Regional Care Facilities, one of which is at Airway Heights. and officers working in medical isolation units will also get vaccines during Phase 1a, Ericson said.

Prisoners who have already tested positive but meet the requirements under Phase 1a could still receive vaccines, Ericson said.

With about 2,000 active COVID-19 cases in incarcerated people and more than 2,400 recovered, Washington’s state prison system ranks 25th out of 50 states for cases as a percentage of the incarcerated population, according to the bulletin.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.