OLYMPIA – Families of incarcerated people in Washington state are worried Monday’s vaccination deadline could lead to long lockdowns and a threat of infection within prison walls.
The Department of Corrections, and Spokane County Jail staff, said contingency plans are in place for normal operations, even as hundreds of jail and prison workers statewide have refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
According to Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange, 91% of staff had turned in vaccine cards as of Thursday evening, although that number varies at each facility. Across the department, about 500 people are at risk for losing their jobs unless they turn in proof of vaccination or receive an accommodation by Monday.
Within Spokane County Detention Services, director Mike Sparber estimates the vaccination rate of his employees is somewhere in the 40% range, although he does not know the precise rate. Only employees who work in the medical annex must abide by Monday’s statewide vaccine mandate, and because he can move staff around, he does not anticipate losing anybody.
Strange told reporters approximately 3% of the staff is being accommodated in some way, although those who have much contact with the population are not accommodated in their current role.
“At this point, we are planning for normal operations,” Strange said. “The situation, of course, is fluid.”
She said she expected numbers to go up in the next few days as more vaccinations are verified.
Data from the state Office of the Financial Management shows DOC facilities’ vaccination rate ranges from about 85% to 91%. Airway Heights has about a 90% vaccination rate, based on data through Oct. 4. That could mean the facility loses 66 people, although that number is likely lower.
The loss of staff could include correctional officers, counselors, food service or medical staff.
Current COVID-19 situation within state prisons
As of Thursday, the department reported 56 total active COVID-19 cases within the incarcerated population. The department has quarantined 785 individuals, and 63 were in medical isolation.
The only current facilitywide outbreak in Washington is at Clallam Bay, with 76 new cases in the last 30 days. As of Oct. 4, Clallam Bay had one of the lowest vaccination rates among staff at less than 86%.
“These jails, these prisons are the perfect incubator for COVID,” said Angel Tomeo Sam, co-founder of Peer Reentry Navigation community bail project in Spokane.
Inmates don’t have the ability to social distance and can’t avoid being exposed by a guard who may bring in COVID-19, she said.
After the outbreak at Airway Heights last year, family members say conditions within the facility improved. But in those with current outbreaks, inmates and families tell a different story.
When he got COVID-19 in August, Timothy Kelly, an inmate at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, was sent to the state corrections center in Shelton to isolate.
In a phone interview with The Spokesman-Review, Kelly called it “the worst trip I ever had.” He recalled having a 103-degree fever, freezing and being refused blankets. He was in a large gym with dozens of other inmates who were quarantined, he said, and he didn’t have access to a phone to update his loved ones.
Despite the outbreak, family members and inmates at Clallam Bay say officers still do not wear masks and cleaning supplies are hard to find. Kelly said bleach and proper rags are often kept from inmates by corrections officers.
He said it does not seem like staff care about stopping the spread of COVID-19, often not taking quick enough steps to quarantine units, testing properly or wearing proper personal protective equipment.
DOC Assistant Secretary Mike Obenland said cleaning supplies are always widely available, although some inmates may have to wait their turn to use them.
Obenland said supervisors check facilities to make sure they are following proper COVID-19 protocols. There may be times when masks are underneath an officer’s nose, for example, but those are often “corrected on the spot,” he said.
Caitlyn Castro, of Tacoma, said her husband, who is in the same unit as Kelly, was sent to Clallam Bay in April 2020. At the time, Castro said, the facility was fine, but with the outbreak, conditions have gotten worse.
Units have been in and out of lockdowns to quarantine those who come in contact with COVID-19, said Kelly, who is normally in a medium-security unit. These lockdowns only allow for inmates to be out of their cell or dorm for one hour a day. During this time, inmates don’t get to use recreational centers or go to work.
While locked down, Castro said her husband does not always get two hot meals a day, but two small, pre-made meals. Kelly and Castro both said their food has been something like a small PB&J, which is sometimes still frozen when it’s served. Castro also said it sometimes takes her husband 45 minutes to be let out to use the bathroom or six hours to get a blanket.
“They deserve to have their basic needs met,” Castro said.
Anxiety from families ahead of Monday’s deadline
Kehaulani Walker, founder and CEO of Families of the Incarcerated, said the incarcerated population is anxious because they don’t know what’s to come Monday.
“It’s been very hard on them,” said Walker, whose husband is an inmate at Airway Heights Corrections Center. “There’s a fear of the unknown.”
Specifically, inmates and families are concerned facilities will go into a 23-hour lockdown.
Walker said when her husband was quarantined in Airway Heights, she had very little communication with him. She normally knows when her husband is going to call and how long they’ll be able to talk, but when he was quarantined, she said she went days without talking to him.
“We don’t want that to happen again,” she said.
Jacquelynn Mejia, of Spokane Valley, said her husband arrived at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton for processing, where he expected to only be for a few weeks. He’s been there since August.
Mejia said the facility is already short-staffed, and her husband is often locked down for 23 hours of the day. He goes days without a shower and days without being able to call her, she said.
“It drives me crazy,” she said. “If I don’t hear from him, I don’t sleep at night.”
When his unit was on a 23-hour lockdown, Castro said her husband would get two 30-minute periods out of his room a day. He would often have to choose whether he wanted to call her or take a shower.
“Why do they have to be punished even more for someone not choosing to get vaccinated?” Castro said.
DOC’s contingency plans point to ‘normal operations’ with minor changes
The mandate will affect each facility differently.
On Friday, Strange did not say specifically if 23-hour lockdowns would happen, but she did say “restricted movement” is a possibility in some facilities.
“We are pre
pared to do that,” Strange said Friday. “It would be short-lived.”
The two biggest facilities the department is concerned about are Clallam Bay and the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, which according to Oct. 4 data had the lowest vaccination rate in the state, at about 85%. That could mean losing 156 people if they do not verify their vaccination status or receive an accommodation by Monday.
Additional staff from other facilities may move to those two facilities to assist with shortages, Strange said. The department may also move some of the population out of those facilities into others.
A contingency planning document, dated Oct. 11, sets out the expectations for each DOC facility. Each facility has different concerns, from the number of medical staff to cooks to corrections officers it may be losing.
For example, Airway Heights in Spokane is anticipating normal operations with a possible reduction in nonessential programs. The biggest concern is the number of confirmed vaccinated medical staff.
Obenland said staffing shortages could also mean closing some recreational, religious or educational services, such as the hobby shop, where inmates make crafts. As of Friday morning, the hobby shop at Clallam Bay was already closed.
Strange also said the department is working with the governor’s office to see if he can issue a proclamation that could pause movement of incarcerated individuals within and into the system. He issued a similar proclamation in December in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Strange said a one-week pause on incoming inmates could allow the department to figure out staffing. It would also keep COVID-19 from spreading further across the department, she said.
Mike Faulk, spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the proclamation is under consideration, and there might be more to say on it this week.
Inslee told reporters Thursday he was very confident in DOC’s contingency plans.
“But that doesn’t mean there might not be some changes,” he said.
Nursing staff biggest concern for state prisons
According to DOC contingency planning, the biggest concern across all facilities is the number of vacant nursing positions.
All facilities are expecting shortages of medical services. The document says most facilities will need to contract nurses, transfer patients to other facilities and will rely on community hospitals for emergency treatment and hospitalization.
Strange said the department works closely with the Department of Health and the Washington State Hospital Association to ensure they have enough people to care for inmates who might need medical attention. But she acknowledged there is already hospital capacity problems across the state.
While the number of COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization has dropped, there are still more than 1,000 patients hospitalized statewide. This is a level similar to the peak during the winter 2020 surge.
Additionally, staffing shortages are hurting long-term care facilities and hospitals statewide.
With the governor’s vaccine mandate, a statewide survey of the majority of hospitals predicts they will lose 2% to 5% of the workforce, or between 3,000 and 7,500 workers.
The Department of Health has brought in a federal contractor, ACI Federal, to send contract workers to facilities that request them. Additionally, hospitals, health care systems or state agencies that employ health care staff can also make federal requests for help through the department. If more requests come in than the department can fill, resources will be targeted where hospital surges will be most relieved.
Strange did not say Friday whether the department is using the federal contractor but said they have always contracted nurses within their facilities.
How the vaccine mandate affects Spokane’s jail
Sparber, Spokane County’s Detention Services director, has been working for months to hire more corrections officers.
Between the county jail and Geiger Corrections Center, Sparber is short 22 positions out of a budgeted 321. He’s gotten approval from the county commissioners to offer hiring bonuses of up to $10,000 as a recruitment aid.
But even though Detention Services is going to great lengths to hire, Sparber’s actually partially grateful at the moment that he has so many vacant positions. Because of the vacancies, he doesn’t have to fire his employees who don’t want to get vaccinated.
Inslee’s vaccine mandate doesn’t cover all of the county’s jail employees, but it does apply to the jail’s medical annex.
Some of the health care workers in the medical annex aren’t county employees. They’re contractors who work for NaphCare, and Sparber said he doesn’t know their vaccine status. He doesn’t think the mandate is going to leave the jail significantly short-handed on nurses.
In addition to the NaphCare staff, 35 county employees work in the medical annex at any given time. Twenty-six of those are corrections officers, eight are mental health workers and one is an instructor.
Of the 35, nine corrections officers and one mental health worker haven’t filed any vaccine documentation – they’re refusing to get vaccinated. Six corrections officers and one mental health worker have asked for medical or religious exemptions. Only one of those requests was denied.
The vaccine mandate means Sparber has to move those 10 unvaccinated employees out of the medical annex. Because he has 22 vacancies, he’s simply going to move them to other positions throughout the jail where they don’t have to be vaccinated.
“We’re unfortunate because we have 22 vacancies,” Sparber said. “But we’re fortunate in the fact that I was able to move those folks.”
Jail employees who are vaccinated, and working elsewhere in the jail, will fill in for the unvaccinated medical annex workers. Because of the transfers, no jail employees are quitting due to the vaccination mandate, Sparber said.
Spokane County jail employees don’t have to work in the same part of the jail forever, so workers who get transferred don’t have to stay there. They bid their positions and shifts every three months.
“No one’s losing their job,” Sparber said. “We’re doing our best to keep everyone employed as far as corrections officers is concerned.”
S-R reporters Arielle Dreher and Colin Tiernan contributed to this report.
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.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.