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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Petition seeks early release of some Washington prison inmates to reduce risk of coronavirus

Thomas Hawk
Flickr -
Columbia Legal Services has filed a lawsuit against the state of Washington seeking the early release of some inmates to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak.

Advocates for people incarcerated in Washington prisons have filed a petition with the state Supreme Court seeking the immediate release of some inmates to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak behind bars.

“Prisons present the potential for a catastrophic outcome should COVID-19 enter these facilities,” said the petition, filed on behalf of five Washington prisoners. It names Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair as the respondents. 

One of the inmates is a pregnant 21-year-old who, lawyers say, is currently sharing a cell with two other women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

The petition for a writ of mandamus, announced Tuesday by Columbia Legal Services, a civil legal aid law firm, asks the Washington Supreme Court to intervene on behalf of older inmates, those with underlying health conditions and those who are within 18 months of their release date. 

“Releasing people from prisons is an essential step in fighting the coronavirus,” said Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. "Life in prison is hard and difficult, but with a contagion like the coronavirus it may also become a death sentence for an untold number of people." 

The petition to the Supreme Court comes after advocacy groups sent lettersto Inslee and Sinclair urging similar measures to address the risk the novel coronavirus poses to Washington’s nearly 17,000 prison inmates. 

Advocates have also raised concerns about the safety of people in city and county jails and juvenile and immigration detention centers.

On Tuesday, King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order suspending the county’s work release program as part of an effort to decrease the number of people in jail. In a press release, King County said it’s working to reduce its jail population by more than 700 so that inmates can have single cells to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

“Quickly and safely reducing the number of people who are in custody will provide our healthcare professionals the space they need to follow recommendations by Public Health,” the county said.

Inslee’s office said it's having ongoing conversations with the Department of Corrections (DOC) about the issue, but that no decisions have been made. "The governor and our staff are aware of the issue and take it seriously," said Tara Lee, the governor's communications director. 

The state’s 12 prisons are currently operating over-capacity and the lawsuit says social distancing – the public health strategy deemed most effective to reduce person-to-person transmission -- is not achievable in an over-crowded, congregate environment.

Already four DOC employees have tested positive for COVID-19, but so far no inmates, according to the agency.

One of the speakers during a conference call to announce the petition was Suzanne Cook whose 62-year-old husband has spent 28 years in prison and has a number of chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

“The COVID virus has really catapulted his survival rate, I’d say, into an abyss,” Cook said. “He is one of many older, sick and compromised prisoners who really now face a fate not of their making.”

Attorney and community organizer Nikkita Oliver said addressing coronavirus in prisons is a matter of racial justice because African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are disproportionately represented in prison.

“Prisons are full of folks that are aging, folks that come from already marginalized communities and what we are looking at is a nightmare,” said Oliver.

The petition to the Supreme Court also warns that an outbreak of COVID-19 in a state prison could result in inmates needing to be hospitalized in the community, “further straining available resources.”

By going directly to the Washington Supreme Court, the plaintiffs are hoping for a quick review and an emergency order for the state to act. Specifically, the petition seeks a court order directing that Secretary Sinclair has the authority to furlough prisoners to reduce the prison population.

The petition also asks the Washington Supreme Court to order DOC to take steps to further protect inmates who aren’t released – including authorizing the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which is considered prison contraband. DOC has said it’s already allowing access to hand sanitizer in situations where soap and water is not readily accessible.

DOC typically doesn't comment on pending litigation, but said in a statement that it has "mounted a system-wide emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis."

"[W]e know friends, family and advocates remain concerned and we want to reassure them, we are doing everything in our power to protect our population, especially the most vulnerable in our care," the statement said.

Separately, in a reply brief to a  lawsuit filed last week in Pierce County Superior Court, the agency defended its response to the coronavirus crisis and said any requirement for the “wholesale release” of inmates “would violate fundamental principles of separation of powers.”

Lawyers for the state wrote that DOC has worked for weeks to “mitigate the threat COVID-19 poses to the incarcerated population.” That includes screening both inmates and staff, isolating individuals with symptoms and quarantining those who might have been exposed, suspending visitation and implementing social distancing guidelines.

“DOC staff are working hard to manage this crisis and will continue to do so,” the lawyers said.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."