People in prisons are, by some estimates, five times more likely to get COVID-19 than those on the outside. To enable social distancing, some people incarcerated in more than twenty-one states were granted early releases last year. This was also the case in Washington State, where I am incarcerated.
But, as soon as Washington’s incarcerated population decreased from around 17,000 to around 13,000 in an effort to save money, the Department of Corrections shut down living units and targeted entire prisons for closure. The remaining residents were, once again, crammed together, negating the previous releases. Outbreaks soon ensued.
Prison guards refused to wear masks or take any action to protect our health, and my neighbors and I knew COVID-19 would soon find its way into our home.
Here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), five prisons sit on a small hill in the middle of rural Monroe, Washington—this includes the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), a general population facility; the Special Offenders Unit, housing people supposedly unfit for the general population because of mental illness; the Twin Rivers Unit, a protective custody facility, with a mandatory program for sex-offenders; the Intensive Management Unit, a solitary confinement prison used for long-term disciplinary sanctions; and the Minimum Security Unit, a work-camp for people with less than four years remaining on their sentences.
WSR is more than 100 years old. The building is crumbling, and the ventilation is poor. Yet, because of its location (less than an hour from Seattle), people incarcerated in Washington often spend their entire sentences trying to get there. This is also due to the progressive, volunteer-based programs that abound there.
Prior to COVID-19-related moratoriums, the Latino Development Organization offered educational opportunities in Spanish to incarcerated people who were being deported upon release. University Beyond Bars provided transferable associate and bachelor degrees to incarcerated people. Alternative to Violence trained residents to become facilitators in its program. And the Black Prisoners’ Caucus worked with politicians and legislators.
The list goes on, and for this reason—among others—transfer to WSR was an unofficial reward for good behavior.
But, despite the opportunities it offers, WSR isn’t suited to protect its residents during the pandemic. For one, it lacks the protective metal doors found in newer facilities. Instead, it has barred cells, placed about a foot apart so thateverybody constantly breathes the same recycled air. Annual colds and flu spread rapidly, and staph infections are a constant threat.
When Washington became the first state in the United States to report cases of COVID-19, I sat in my six-by-nine cell in WSR, watching the news as the virus cast its deadly shadow over a nursing-home in Kirkland, a city located just forty minutes away.
Prison guards refused to wear masks or take any action to protect our health, and my neighbors and I knew COVID-19 would soon find its way into our home. It hit the Minimum Security Unit first. Residents were shot with nonlethal projectiles for organizing a protest, which was later labeled the first prison riot in the country over conditions related to COVID-19. In the days following the protest, staffers in MCC were finally mandated to wear masks.
By that time, however, my neighbors were already coughing, wheezing, and attempting to hide their symptoms, since anyone who reported symptoms of COVID-19 was taken to 24/7 solitary confinement and denied phone access and showers.
Outbreaks soon plagued prisons and jails everywhere across the country. In May 2020, Chicago’s Cook County Jail reported a higher infection rate than almost anywhere in the country. As John J. Lennon, a New York prisoner and contributing editor for Esquire, wrote, “Social distancing, to the extent that you guys do it in society, is impossible in a place like Sing Sing and most prisons around the nation, I would say. The tier is like two feet wide. You literally have to go chest-to-chest to slide by somebody.”
Eventually, an outbreak in WSR was detected by the prison administration, and rapid releases were granted by Washington Governor Jay Inslee. An emergency hospital unit was erected in the prison gymnasium, and no cell housed more than one person at a time. As a result, cases went down. And, for the first time since the pandemic began, we felt like the DOC had finally done something right.
Then, one morning we woke up to an electronic message on the unit kiosk (like that in an airport departure lounge), informing us that the decreased population had provided the DOC an opportunity to save money by consolidating living units. Many units across the state would be shut down, and cells would be, once again, doubled up. In the case of WSR, the entire prison would be closed, and those housed there would be relocated.
I was sent to the Minimum Security Unit, and about a week later, an entire block of cells here was closed. As its occupants were divided into other units, the question circulating—seemingly on repeat—was, “Why is saving money all of a sudden more important than socially distancing?” Days later, residents in my new unit began testing positive for COVID-19, and the prison entered—once again—into outbreak status.
Nothing has changed here. Buses continue to dump more people into our overcrowded home every week, while that one unit remains empty. My old neighbors in WSR are being sent out, and the most progressive prison programs in the state have been dismantled. In addition, prison staff in Washington are prepared to quit their jobs over vaccine mandates.
COVID-19 is still deadly, and though it’s disproportionately hurting those of us who are in prisons, it doesn’t seem to matter when officials care more about their bottom line than our health and wellbeing.