Stopping Coronavirus Spread Inside Prisons: ‘A Simple Fix’

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Lincoln Prison (UK). Photo by hillcroftdave via Flickr

Last Thursday afternoon, an inmate at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) was taken to medical isolation after experiencing flu-like symptoms. Despite feeling lousy for almost a week, this inmate hid his growing sickness from staff and other inmates.

He continued his duties as a janitor, which (ironically) included disinfecting tables and phones in a shared day-room space, until the symptoms were just too severe.

As a result of his delayed reporting, nearly 400 other inmates—including me—may have been exposed to whatever virus he was carrying. Those inmates, who are housed in WSR’s C and D units, are now living under a 14-day precautionary quarantine. (Inmates in two other units were already in quarantine, sparked by a correctional officer’s positive test result for COVID-19, as I wrote in a previous column for The Crime Report.)

You’re probably thinking: Why did that inmate wait so long before saying something? Or more importantly, why would he continue working despite the obvious risk he posed to other people?

The answer, I believe, is quite simple: he didn’t want to compound his misery.

Just before WSR’s first quarantine order, the Department of Corrections (DOC) adopted a new policy that requires isolating prisoners who show flu-like symptoms.

According to DOC’s website, “incarcerated individuals who show symptoms will be directed to don a surgical mask to immediately prevent potential spread of a virus and [will be] placed in isolation.”

And while the site of isolation varies, depending on the facility at which the sick inmate is housed, one theme remains constant: it’s a bare cell without any of the inmate’s personal belongings.

For instance, WSR inmates who show symptoms are taken across the Monroe Correctional Complex—a massive compound north of Seattle that comprises five separate carceral facilities—to a building in the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) that formerly functioned as a hole (that’s prison-speak for solitary confinement).

Inmates are not allowed to bring any personal items: no TV, no books, no J-Pay tablet (used for sending e-messages), and no food purchased from the commissary. Their stay is necessarily indeterminate. They must be “symptom-free for 14 days” before being released back to the general population, says DOC.

No inmate, sick or otherwise, wants to endure this, regardless of the potential risk of viral spread.

Isolation is generally used to punish troublesome prisoners when they act up, and merely saying that this time it’s for the inmate’s benefit does not purge that aura of punishment. Time spent in isolation—even “medical” isolation—is still a seemingly endless experience in a cold and empty cell.

Prisoners isolated from WSR may have it even worse.

Officers not wishing to be named revealed that E Unit—the building used for quarantine at TRU—is not in good shape. Plumbing problems result in brown water coming from the sinks in some of the cells, forcing staff to carry cups of water to cell doors for sick inmates to drink. It’s also alleged that showering for these inmates is an every-other-day affair at best.

Many Americans are now self-isolating in their own homes, but in order to imagine what an inmate endures when he’s isolated in quarantine, even without the brown water and lack of hygiene, try this thought experiment.

Take one of those thin foam mats people provide for their pets, throw it on the bathroom floor, cop a squat, and don’t leave for a few weeks. Leave all TVs, books, and snacks in another area of the house. And don’t even think about bringing some means of contacting your loved ones. You will (perhaps) be provided with a phone for 20 minutes each day.

Then imagine enduring this for weeks of boredom and loneliness, almost completely disconnected from the outside world.

It’s not hard to understand why sick inmates aren’t revealing when they’re sick.

Instead, they carry on as if everything is okay. Every day, they leave their cells and show up for work, since any absence would cause suspicion. (This is a prison after all.) If ever they skip work, a guard will come to the cell front, find them feverish, and call the nurse. Then off to isolation they go.

Rather than risk this fate, they try to act normally—and risk spreading an infection amongst the inmates and staff.

It’s unclear whether the inmate taken on Thursday has COVID-19. Of the roughly 18,000 inmates in Washington’s prison system, only 111 have been tested for the novel coronavirus. So far, none have come up positive; but many tests are still pending.

And according to our tier representative—an inmate selected by popular vote to act as a liaison between us and administration—the results from our guy are not expected for nine days.

In the meantime, we sit on quarantine, and who knows how many more people are hiding a sickness.

Tomas Keen

Tomas Keen

This is all rather frustrating, and made even more so by how simple it would be to fix. All of this could be remedied by creating a more humane policy: one that allows for sick inmates to stave off the torturous boredom of isolation by bringing some of their personal items. This would ease the dread of going to isolation.

It’s an easy fix to a serious problem.

When medical isolation starts to look more like treatment and less like punishment, more people will willingly use it. And when that happens, we’ll all be much safer.

Tomas Keen is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory, where he chairs the legislative committee of the prison’s Concerned Lifers Organization. 

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