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Prisoners’ families call for meeting with head of corrections agency amid COVID-19 outbreaks

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

A group advocating for families of prisoners is calling for a meeting with the head of the state Department of Corrections as more than 5,000 COVID-19 cases and nine deaths have been reported among inmates since the start of the pandemic.

The group hosted about 100 people on a video conference call Tuesday that included DOC assistant secretary Danielle Armbruster, a handful of state employees, state senators and members of the Office of the Corrections Ombuds.

Mattlani Walker, a founder of Families of the Incarcerated whose partner is an inmate at Airway Heights Corrections Center, pleaded with Armbruster: “I come to you tonight, from my heart, as I talk to a lot of families from all 12 prisons. We are humans and we need this meeting with (DOC Secretary Stephen) Sinclair. And we come from a place that I hope you know is sincere, not from a place that wants to argue.”

Armbruster said Sinclair was aware she’d attended the meeting on the department’s behalf and that she’d be happy to take the request to Sinclair on Wednesday.

“Thank you for the invitation tonight. Thank you for speaking your truth,” Armbruster said. “Your frustrations and concerns are not unheard. I, too, care about your loved ones. They’re people just like I am, just like you are and we are in this together as a community. We will come together as a group and figure out how we can support each other.”

Family members of prisoners described their relatives going without showers for many days, long delays before receiving food and medicine, and having spent weeks without stepping outside.

Ari Kohn, president at nonprofit Post-Prison Education Program, pointed to delayed releases during COVID-19 outbreaks.

Kohn said Washington Corrections Center prisoner David Wheatley’s counselor did not show up to work for about a quarter of the year, leaving Wheatley without an address or documentation to send him home. Kohn said for three weeks after Wheatley’s release date, he remained in prison while Kohn’s nonprofit, rather than the agency, set up his release arrangements through “lots of emails and whatever arguments, begging and pleading.”

“And during the three weeks when he shouldn’t have been in, he got COVID,” Kohn said. “I can go through these examples one after the other like a broken record, because they’re going on every day all day long.”

To address COVID-19 in prisons, members of the group endorsed Senate Bill 5121 – the Graduated Reentry Bill – which would allow more prisoners to be confined electronically at an approved home rather than in prison. They also pointed to Senate Bill 5117, sponsored by state senator Joe Nguyen, which would expand housing vouchers to ease transitions out of prison.

“I’m asking DOC to do what’s right, to act,” said Davina Kerrelola of the families group. “Nine individuals so far will never be able to see their families again. They will never be able to enjoy life. Although we don’t have the names of the most recent, all of those individuals had a release date. They were not sentenced to death.”

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