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MONROE, WA — A correctional officer employed at the Monroe Correctional Complex has died from COVID-19 complications, the Department of Corrections announced Monday.
Berisford Morse, 65, worked in the minimum security unit at the Monroe prison and died from the illness on Sunday. His death is the first linked to the coronavirus across Washington's prison system.
"It is a tragedy to lose a member of our public safety community and correctional family," said Stephen Sinclair, Secretary of Corrections, in a news release Monday evening. "Our hearts go out to Officer Morse's grieving family and the sacrifice they have made."
According to the Department of Corrections, Morse was identified as a potential exposure during contact tracing for an inmate that tested positive for the coronavirus on April 12. Corrections officials said he last worked at the Monroe facility on April 24 and reported symptoms to his shift commander that evening.
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In early April, the Washington State Supreme Court granted an emergency motion filed on behalf of Monroe inmates, ordering Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary Sinclair to provide a plan to enact better protections, after six prisoners and five staff members at the facility contracted the virus.
According to the Department of Corrections, at least 18 inmates and nine staff members at the Monroe Correctional Complex have tested positive for the virus to date. The corrections website shows 410 incarcerated people have received tests throughout the state, including 34 with confirmed cases.
As a result of April's emergency order, the state authorized early releases for approximately 1,100 Washington inmates through commutation, rapid reentry, or work release furloughs.
Late last month, the state's highest rejected a lawsuit seeking temporary release for thousands of inmates to reduce prison populations, allowing for better physical distancing, and protect those in at-risk groups for COVID-19 complications. Attorneys representing the inmates argued keeping them in prison violated the state constitution's cruel punishment clause by putting them at "a substantial risk of serious harm."
In a 5-4 ruling, justices found the state's existing measures did not show "deliberate indifference to the COVID-19 risk" within state prisons.