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At Coyote Ridge, amid 229 COVID-19 cases, inmates say conditions are ‘disgusting’

A Coyote Ridge Corrections Center inmate displays a meal via an image taken at a communication kiosk inside the prison. Some inmates have described the food as “inedible.” A family member posted these images to a Facebook support group for inmates’ loved ones.  ((Facebook))

Last week, Beverly Richmond’s son spent up to 36 hours at a time locked in a 6-by-9-foot cell with another prisoner and no toilet. She said he peed in water bottles and defecated in a coffee can.

“It’s not just about my son,” Richmond said. “It’s about 1,800 men that are at Coyote Ridge today that are experiencing situations they should not have to endure.”

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, about 100 miles southwest of Spokane. As of Friday, the prison had reported 229 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in prisoners and two prisoner deaths from the disease. At the same time, 54 staff members have tested positive with no deaths.

To quell the fast-spreading disease, the prison turned to isolating its population.

People in the minimum security, or MI3, units are allowed out in small groups for 30 minutes per day to shower, said Janelle Guthrie, Communications Director of Washington State Department of Corrections.

That 30 minutes is also the only time incarcerated men have to call their lawyers, contact loved ones, fill up pitchers of water, shave, sync their media players, get ice, get clean clothes, use the microwave or walk outside for a few minutes – all of which, Richmond said, is not “humanly possible” in that time.

Carra Morgan’s husband, incarcerated for drug use that violated his parole, went 42 days without stepping outside or getting “any fresh air or sunshine.”

Last week, she said, an outside area for inmates opened but was immediately closed for two days when officers determined men had not been socially distancing enough.

To Morgan, the “inhumane” conditions are a reflection of a larger issue: that much of society sees prisoners as not quite human.

“He’s valuable. This doesn’t define him,” Morgan said. “He’s a valuable human life with feelings. He’s not just a number, and that’s all he is to them.”

Inmates were locked in their cells with daily 30-minute breaks for about a week starting in mid-June, Morgan said. Now they’re spending the same amount of time in their cells and doors are unlocked. But she said they can only open their doors to ask permission to use the restroom.

Two out of about 120 men can be in the bathroom at one time, she said. For her husband, the wait to use the toilet once he asks permission has regularly been 1½ to two hours, she said.

“He’s still being treated like less than a dog,” Morgan said.

His unit had previously been allowed to care for and train dogs through the Ridge Dogs prison program. Richmond and Morgan said the program recently pulled its dogs out because it could not humanely keep dogs in cells as long as the prisoners were being held without breaks.

“Is that ironic or what? I think that speaks volumes,” Morgan said.

She said the conditions are wrecking her husband’s mental health. He would normally see his therapist bimonthly and has only seen him three times since April, she said.

Richmond said there have been other problems. Guards at Coyote Ridge haven’t been wearing masks and haven’t gone outside to spit chewing tobacco , she said.

Some inmates have sent pictures of “disgusting” food to their loved ones, she said. Officers had been delivering the “inedible” food to each cell, sometimes hours after it was prepared, along with sour milk, Richmond said.

Some pictures of the conditions have been sent via smuggled cellphones. 

And inmates reported to family members that the prison was out of soap for three weeks, she said.

When asked about officers spitting chew and working maskless, Guthrie said corrections officers are permitted to use smokeless or chewing tobacco, “but it must be in a secured container and kept on person at all times.”

The secretary of the Department of Corrections, Stephen Sinclair, directed all staff and incarcerated individuals to wear face coverings anytime they are in any facility, she said.

Guthrie did not answer a question about whether the facility had been out of soap or for how long, but said soap is “available to all incarcerated individuals on request and is freely available in the restrooms.” Officers were previously delivering it once a week, she said, but moved to an on-demand system to be more responsive and prevent unnecessary deliveries.

As for food quality, the Department of Corrections had received complaints that milk being delivered was near its expiration date, but not expired, Guthrie said. Food services have since addressed that concern, she said.

Guthrie did not directly answer a question about whether food has been cold or soggy, but said the facility “was experiencing some delays in food delivery … resulting in meals being delivered to the units twice a day for 1,800 offenders, but that has since been remedied.”

In a Department of Corrections press release from June 30, Washington officials said the facility has managed the virus well.

“I’m pleased to see that at this time, it appears our mitigation strategy has helped us manage the spread of this virus,” Sinclair said.

Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases with the state Department of Health, said DOC staff and leadership have done a “thoughtful and thorough” job providing testing, isolation and quarantine at the prison.

“It has been a pleasure to partner with Department of Corrections in these efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 within Washington State,” he said in the release.

But the new measures are not working based on confirmed case numbers, Morgan said. She suspects the circulated air in the unit renders separation in cells useless, if the virus is airborne.

But if isolation did work, she said her greater concern at this point is the inmates’ deteriorating mental health.

“The damage they’re doing to almost 2,000 men’s mental health outweighs the risk of potentially catching a virus if you can recover from it,” Morgan said. “The damage and trauma inflicted on someone for being treated inhumanely, not having access to their basic human rights and needs, is lifelong. Like, you don’t recover from that.”