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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Making the same mistakes’: COVID-19 outbreaks spread across Corrections facilities

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

OLYMPIA – A year ago COVID-19 swept through the state’s prisons. At Airway Heights Corrections Center, 92% of its population come down with the virus during the peak of the infections.

Now as the omicron variant spreads quickly across the state, cases in the state’s prisons are rising again, too.

The Department of Corrections is seeing its highest COVID-19 numbers yet. As of Friday, 19 facilities were on outbreak status. More than 20% of the state’s prison population – about 2,600 inmates – are sick . More than 700 staff members also were sick with the virus as of Friday.

Airway Heights had 575 active COVID-19 cases among inmates. A week ago, that number was 294. Cases among staff are currently at 101, as of Friday. Coyote Ridge had 265 active COVID-19 cases among inmates and 106 active COVID-19 cases among staff.

Inmates at Airway Heights say the conditions are similar to those they experienced in winter of 2020.

“We’re making the same mistakes over and over again,” said Tobias Wilson, who is currently serving time there.

Inmates, families feel ‘hopeless’Beginning Jan. 19, Airway Heights main institution went on “restricted movement status” due to a facility wide outbreak, according to a memo. Restricted movement means the population could not attend regularly scheduled programs, call-outs and services.

According to a Jan. 22 memo from the Department of Corrections, Airway Heights is continuing to test the entire population, and staff are required to test twice a week. All facilities use both rapid and PCR testing for incarcerated people, department spokespeople Jacque Koe and Rachel Ericson wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

Rapid testing is used to quickly identify positive people in order to slow the spread in a living unit or before a transport, according to the email. PCR testing, on the other hand, is used regularly when it is needed to test the entire population or “when otherwise determined a necessity by medical staff.”

Wilson, who was at Airway Heights during last year’s outbreak, said he is seeing people get sick for the second time, despite having been vaccinated.

Wilson said they are being tested but his unit is using tests that take days to get results, as opposed to rapid tests that are ready within 15 minutes. During the time people are waiting for their test results, Wilson said they continue to move around as normal without knowing if they are infected .

Wilson was one of the first people who tested positive for COVID-19 last year. Now, one year later, he is still awaiting test results to tell him if he has it a second time.

“Do I believe I’ve been exposed? Yes,” he said.

In its three-times-a-week COVID-19 bulletin, the Department of Corrections said people who test positive are temporarily moved to medical isolation areas that are separate from quarantined areas. People who are quarantined are able to stay in their living unit. Individuals who are at a higher risk for testing positive are often moved to single-cell quarantine areas, according to the bulletin.

If someone has a cell mate who tests positive for COVID-19, for example, the person who did not test positive is moved to quarantine in a single cell. This protects individuals in the living unit who are not positive for COVID-19 and better allows clinical teams to monitor positive individuals, according to the bulletin.

“Upon receipt of confirmed positive test results for incarcerated individuals, every effort is made to move those individuals to medical isolation areas to separate them from healthy individuals,” according to an email from Department spokespeople.

But incarcerated people and their families say inmates are mixed up regardless of COVID-19 status, meaning those with negative tests and positive tests end up in the same room.

Greg Hyde, an inmate at Airway Heights, said his unit was tested for COVID-19, but didn’t receive their results until five days later. During those five days, the unit was moving around like normal. After about 30 people tested positive, he said everyone in the unit received rapid tests. Hyde estimated about 40 more people tested positive on those rapid tests.

Even after the test results, Hyde said people who tested positive and tested negative are “co-mingling.”

“They’re using the same approaches that failed,” Hyde said.

Terry Grant, an inmate at Airway Heights, said he was one of the first people to test positive during this outbreak. After testing positive, he said he moved around four times, eventually spending four days with 100 other inmates in the gym.

Since then, he’s moved back into his cell with his cellmate who had tested negative.

Daniel Hawn is in a minimum security unit and said his tier of 18 people has not had any positive COVID-19 cases as of Friday. He said everyone in his unit has taken eight rapid tests and one PCR test in the past two weeks.

Despite no one testing positive, Hawn said his tier is in quarantine mode “indefinitely,” meaning they only get out once or twice a day for 45 minutes at a time.

Grant said staff are not treating them badly, but they are making the same decisions they did last year.

“They just did not prepare themselves for this,” Grant said. “They are going to give everybody this virus.”

Others, like Wilson, are reporting worse conditions. He said he and others in his unit were locked down in cells with no toilet or access to water for hours at a time. He also said medical staff has not done regular wellness checks.

“If you know you’re in outbreak status, where’s the medical staff?” he said. “I don’t see them.”

At Airway Heights, inmates now get one hot meal a day instead of their usual two. The other two meals a day are often frozen or something small, like a PB&J, inmates say, and the meals they do receive often arrive late.

According to the Department of Corrections, the change in meals is due to “critical-staffing levels and lack of incarcerated workers.” As more staff members and inmates get sick, fewer people are available to make and deliver food.

In a letter to families, Secretary Cheryl Strange acknowledged meals are taking longer to serve but said everyone in the facility has the opportunity to eat every meal. She added there is “unlimited access to water in cells and common areas used for quarantine and isolation.”

Still, families are worried for what conditions their family members are in. As of Jan. 12, the department temporarily suspended all visitation to prison facilities . Because inmates have restricted movement, they only have access to phones at certain times of day.

“It’s a repeat of last year, but it’s worse,” said Kehaulani Walker, founder of Families of the Incarcerated. Walker, whose husband is an inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex, advocates for families with people in the prison system.

Walker said she’s never heard her husband, Matthew, sound as worried as he does.

“I feel so hopeless,” Walker said. “I don’t want my husband to die in prison.”

Ilea Wilson said she goes days without hearing from her husband, Tobias. Before the outbreak, she would talk to him multiple times a day. She said she struggles to get information from the Department of Corrections about how her husband is doing, and “nobody knows what’s going on.”

“When it hit in 2020, nobody knew what to do and there was a lot of miscommunication,” she said. “And now, it feels like they didn’t learn anything.”

Department deals with staffing shortages as virus spreads among employeesAs of Friday, 728 inmates had active COVID-19 cases, but the number of staff out sick “varies widely and changes each day,” department spokespeople wrote in an email.

Staff members are advised to stay home anywhere from five to 10 days from the date of their positive test, according to spokespeople. Staff must achieve a negative test through rapid testing before they can return to their shifts.

In a Jan. 14 all-staff memo, Deputy Secretary Sean Murphy wrote to department employees that the staffing issue facing the state’s prisons is “one that has never been experienced before.”

“Many frontline prison employees have shared their concerns regarding the lack of staffing and the amount of overtime they are enduring,” the memo read. “We hear you and understand the impacts to you, your families, and those in our care and custody.”

To assist with the shortage, the department was evaluating custody staff in screening and testing areas and non-permanent positions and moving them back into custody positions. The department was using staff on modified duty to complete screening, testing and mapping. The department said it also was using management to cover some posts when staff were out sick to help reduce overtime.

Staff from other areas have also volunteered to assist when needed, according to the memo.

The department also halted all visitation for prisons and work release facilities in an attempt to slow the spread. It added it would stop movement and programs for inmates as necessary but was “cautious because this can create other safety issues and hinder re-entry success.”

What the state’s doingGov. Jay Inslee told reporters Thursday the Department of Corrections is doing “everything it can,” but it can be difficult to slow the spread in congregate settings like prisons.

He said Corrections employees are continuing to mask and test regularly. The state is making sure the vaccine and boosters are widely available to inmates.

Inslee said there are no immediate plans for early release of inmates like what he did at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 because he thinks case rates will decline soon.

“We do believe that it is likely we will see a relatively rapid decline in the relatively near future,” Inslee said Thursday.

Inslee did not say Thursday whether he would be sending the National Guard to help with staffing shortages in Corrections facilities.

Department of Corrections spokespeople said they are in regular contact with the Department of Health, the state Emergency Management Division and the governor’s office to identify any resources needed.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.