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SEATTLE, WA — A petition seeking the temporary release of hundreds of at-risk inmates during the coronavirus outbreak will move forward Monday before Washington's highest court.
The lawsuit, filed by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of a group on inmates, asks the state Supreme Court to grant a writ of mandamus, compelling the governor and the Department of Corrections to take further measures to ensure the safety of inmates and staff in Washington's prisons.
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"This is a virus that not only spreads quickly but creates severe illness in a lot of individuals," said Nick Allen, the deputy director of advocacy for Columbia Legal Services.
According to the Associated Press, close to 18,000 people are currently incarcerated in state facilities. The petition effort asks the court to release all inmates over the age of 50 — roughly 2,000 people — and those who have underlying health conditions that could cause serious complications or death should they contract the COVID-19 virus. To further reduce prison density, the lawsuit also seeks the release of inmates who are within 18 months of their early-release date.
Allen told Patch the state needs to act with the same urgency it did to mandate increasing social distancing efforts across the rest of the state.
"That all took place over the course of, what, 10 or 12 days? That was urgent action and necessary," Allen said. "It wasn't unreasonable, it wasn't an exaggerated response to what we're seeing. It is our belief that similar, expedited action is necessary in regards to people who are in prison."
While the Department of Corrections has taken some measures to encourage social distancing, Allen said it's not possible to fulfill the full requirements inside a corrections facility.
"It's another congregate environment, like nursing homes, like cruise ships — but in most respects, the conditions are much, much worse," Allen said. "With regards to sanitary conditions within the prisons, with regards to density within the prisons, there is really no way to achieve the appropriate level of social distancing in prisons, and really no way to achieve the level of hygiene that's necessary to protect against the virus."
Allen's concerns mirror those expressed by Ray Rhodes, whose wife, Cynthia Miller, is incarcerated at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Rhodes said his wife, who is 60, has an autoimmune disorder and a long history of significant health issues, including a heart condition and ongoing complications related to a failed pelvic mesh device procedure that is the subject of lawsuits across the nation.
Miller was incarcerated in March 2016 and sentenced to nearly three decades in prison, according to corrections officials. Rhodes said his wife was convicted on a first-degree assault charge in Thurston County and her case remains in appeal.
According to Rhodes, previous attempts to secure an emergency medical release or furlough for surgical procedures have been denied. Since the outbreak began, he has again sought a temporary release for Miller but has not heard back. If she remains in prison, Rhodes worries any exposure to COVID-19 would effectively amount to a death sentence.
"If my wife catches this virus, it's fatal," Rhodes told Patch. "She will not be able to fight this off."
Department of Corrections data shows that 149 inmates have been tested among prison and work release facilities, with negative results returning for 117 inmates and lab results still pending for 32. At least 170 incarcerated people are in isolation across state facilities, and 1,157 are in quarantine. Information provided by the department does not break down test results, quarantines or isolations per facility.
Corrections officials announced the first inmate to contract COVID-19 within a state prison Monday morning, and a handful of staff members have tested positive. The Department of Corrections said an incarcerated patient at Snohomish County Medical Center tested positive for COVID-19 last month, about three weeks after he was transported from the Monroe Correctional Complex.
No confirmed cases have been reported among staff at the Gig Harbor facility, although each day brings a new potential for exposure.
"You have staff that are coming in and out of the prisons that are also going to be impacted by the ongoing spread of the virus — which is going to not only expose them to the virus, but they will be exposing others to the virus," Allen said.
Despite detailed screening guidelines outlined by the department, obvious symptoms are not always present in those who have contracted the virus. Corrections officials said they have implemented several precautionary measures, including more-intensive cleaning protocols and increased access to sanitation products.
"There have been steps taken, but that is not enough to protect against transmission of the virus," Allen said. "I know that DOC is saying that they're encouraging people to stay 6 feet from each other, but again, that's pretty much all you can do in a prison is encourage. You can't mandate anything like that, because you just don't have the space to be able to do that."
According to Rhodes, his wife has experienced that firsthand.
"She's told me that it's impossible for any of the offenders to follow the 6-foot rule," Rhodes said. "A lot of them are in a 5-by-7 cell, [and] there's two people, sometimes three people to a cell."
"They're not exercising what the governor has ordered the rest of the population to do on the outside of the facility."
Should transmission of the virus occur inside a prison, another concern raised by petitioners is the increased strain on a medical system already beset by the COVID-19 cases throughout the region.
"When people in prison are infected with the virus, they will not be able to be treated inside the prison," Allen said. "They are going to have to be sent out for those same services that everybody else in the community needs."
The Washington Supreme Court granted a motion for accelerated review and set a case schedule for April. An "opening merits brief," filed by the petitioners, was due to be filed Monday, followed by the state's response, due April 13. According to Columbia Legal Services, the case will be ready for the court's consideration by April 16.
"Urgent action has been taken on behalf of almost every other community in Washington state," Allen said, "and it is more than past time for the same response to be taken with regards to folks who are in prison."