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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Some 92% of Airway Heights prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, and three more have died

The Airway Heights Correctional Center is seen near Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

At Airway Heights Corrections Center, with a current population just under 2,000, 92% of prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 since Dec. 1.

That’s 27 times the overall case rate in Spokane County, where – including prisoners – 3.4% of residents tested positive since Dec. 1.

Tuesday, another Airway Heights prisoner died from COVID-19, bringing the prison’s COVID death toll to five and the state prison system’s to 13. Two other Airway Heights prisoners died last week, according to a Department of Corrections news release Friday.

“It’s heartbreaking because my husband’s there,” said Mattlani Walker, a founder of Families of the Incarcerated whose husband tested positive for COVID at Airway Heights weeks ago.

While her husband and many others are now recovered, in the last 30 days, 239 new prisoners tested positive. In total, 1,664 inmates of 1,813 have tested positive for the virus there.

As of this week, prisoners who had been held in the gym – a temporary housing unit for COVID-positive men – have returned to living units, according to a Friday DOC news bulletin.

Since December, the agency has not named the people in its custody who have died from COVID complications.

Prior to December, the Department of Corrections released mug shots and information about age, health, charges and sentencing for the first three state prisoners who died from COVID-19 – Victor Bueno, William Bryant and Michael Cornethan. Bueno had three months left before his expected release date when he died.

Rachel Ericson, a spokesperson for the department, said after releasing information about the first three prisoners who died from COVID-19, some friends and family of incarcerated people expressed concerns about identifying prisoners as their families grieved.

“The department carefully considered and weighed disclosing a recently deceased individual’s identification versus the general public’s need for personally identifiable information about the death of another human being,” Ericson said. “The department has chosen to respect the deceased and their loved ones.”

Walker doesn’t think that’s right.

During a statewide family council meeting, arranged by the Department of Corrections, Walker said families were “not happy about” the change and had only asked that prisoners’ charges not be included in the releases.

Feeling defeated about the virus’s massive spread, Walker said many prisoners’ loved ones have pivoted from advocating for better social distancing and releases to prevent new cases to prioritizing mental health.

To prevent viral spread, Walker’s husband was on “restricted movement” for a month, and she said he could not step outside for fresh air once during that period. He’s been back to “normal” for two weeks, she said, but most of the prison’s programming – classes, Bible study and other rehabilitative activities – are still unavailable due to social distancing.

“If you can’t contain the spread at all, why not be normal?” Walker asked. “If the population is 92% positive, and I don’t wish it on the 8% who don’t have it, but I believe that the incarcerated population is struggling mentally because of the isolation.”

The Washington state prison system currently ranks 20th out of 50 states for the number of positive cases as a percentage of the population, according to a news bulletin from the Department of Corrections.