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News >  Spokane

Airway Heights Corrections Center to take overflow of prisoners with COVID-19 if cases surge

A prisoner at the Airway Heights Correction Center takes part in a counseling program in May 2019. The prison is being outfitted as one of two “regional care facilities” that will treat inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 if there is a spike in the number of cases within the state prison system. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A prisoner at the Airway Heights Correction Center takes part in a counseling program in May 2019. The prison is being outfitted as one of two “regional care facilities” that will treat inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 if there is a spike in the number of cases within the state prison system. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Airway Heights Corrections Center is being outfitted as one of two “regional care facilities” that will treat inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 if there is a spike in the number of cases within the state prison system.

In a recent memo to Department of Corrections staff, Secretary Stephen Sinclair said the agency worked with officials from the state Department of Health and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April to assess multiple sites for the treatment facilities.

They selected the Airway Heights Corrections Center and the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton to treat any “overflow” of COVID-19 patients from other prisons, Sinclair said.

The DOC has mapped where beds, nursing areas and hand-washing stations will go in each of the facilities. They will occupy preexisting spaces at the two prisons “without interruption to delivery of services or activities,” Sinclair said.

In an email, a DOC spokesperson said the facilities will be staffed by correctional officers and agency medical personnel. The Airway Heights facility will have about 30 beds and “should be operational in the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said.

As of Friday, the DOC said it had confirmed only 26 cases of COVID-19 among people incarcerated at its prisons and work-release facilities. Additionally, 37 employees have tested positive for the disease, including two at Airway Heights.

The largest cluster of cases – nine employees and 16 inmates – occurred at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County.

In the event of a larger outbreak within the prison system, the two treatment facilities “would safely and comfortably house incarcerated individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and may require more comprehensive medical attention and physical isolation from healthy populations, but do not require hospitalization,” Sinclair said in his memo.

“Should an infected individual’s medical conditions or needs become severe, the department and agency medical personnel will work collaboratively with hospital partners to provide the necessary medical care,” he said.

The DOC is releasing more than 1,000 inmates early due to concerns about the coronavirus spreading in crowded correctional facilities.

The state Supreme Court recently rejected a lawsuit that sought the release of thousands more. The lawsuit, filed by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of five inmates with chronic medical issues, alleged that incarceration during the pandemic amounts to unconstitutionally cruel punishment.

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