Hostages Behind Bars: Why COVID-19 Fuels Tension in Prisons

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Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

Last week, nearly 100 inmates held an aggressive demonstration at the Monroe Correctional Complex’s (MCC) Minimum Security Unit in Washington State. It was widely reported in the media and, as it turned out, the demonstration was one of several that occurred in facilities around the country in response to fears over the spread of COVID-19.

Correctional officers deployed high-potency pepper spray and a barrage of sting balls to put down the uprising. But other than the effects from these measures, no inmates or staff members were injured.

I’d like to offer some context for the incident, in the hope that some useful lessons can be learned.

The disturbance was catalyzed by fear over a recent COVID-19 outbreak inside the prison, and more specifically by inmates’ anger over what they perceived as a lack of concern for their safety.

In the aftermath, inmates reported—and prison administrators acknowledged—that tensions reached critical mass after word spread that in less than 48 hours the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside MCC jumped from one prisoner to six, with five staff members testing positive as well.

This flash outbreak confirmed what many inmates already suspected: that the procedures established by the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) to prevent the virus from entering−and for containment if it did−were inadequate.

Since the early days of the pandemic, WDOC has been actively screening all people arriving on site—personnel and inmates—by taking temperatures and asking whether they have had a cough, temperature, or other symptoms in the previous two weeks.

Staff who disclose symptoms are sent home for self-quarantine, and inmates with symptoms are moved to isolation. Any inmate potentially exposed to someone carrying the virus is immediately placed on precautionary quarantine.

Also, sanitation efforts were stepped up to ensure that all high-touch and high-traffic areas are cleaned regularly throughout the day.

But missing from these protocols is one of the most obvious and effective safety precautions: mandatory face masks for all staff members.

As early as April 3, WDOC publicly acknowledged “that staff represent a point of vulnerability in potentially bringing COVID-19 within a correctional facility” and began issuing “expired N95 respirators” to staff members for voluntary use. Officials, however, refused to require them.

Inmates took steps to make the masks mandatory but were thwarted by prison staff.

A tier representative—that is, a prisoner selected by popular vote to act as the liaison between inmates and administration—sent an electronic message through an on-unit kiosk to MCC’s captain and superintendent asking why every staff member wasn’t currently wearing protective equipment.

A unit counselor, however, responded in person and told him to drop the issue or risk losing his position.

He dropped it.

Community activists also recognized early on that existing procedures were not enough to ensure the inmates’ safety.

Outside Protest

Knowing that the only way for the virus to penetrate prison walls is for staff—who may be asymptomatic—to carry it through the front doors, citizens gathered to protest outside MCC in the days leading up to the disturbance. They carried signs reading, among other things, “Inmates’ Lives Matter,” and issued demands that all staff in the prison wear face coverings and that some inmates be immediately released.

In the days before the demonstration, Disability Rights (Washington) attorney Rachel Seevers warned on TVW—Washington state’s public service channel—that waiting to act would risk lives. She explained that prisons in Washington, which recently made headlines for their sub-par medical services, are operating at 100 percent capacity, producing conditions for a devastating outbreak.

When pressed for solutions, Seevers listed several options, including releasing the most vulnerable inmates, those over 50, and those already nearing their release dates. (Many of these solutions were discussed at length in my previous article for The Crime Report.)

As of yet, none of these ideas has been adopted.

Beyond the predictably inadequate safety measures, one MCC inmate pointed to a more personal source of frustration that contributed to the unrest.

“Even though it’s the officers that carry in the virus, staff look at us as if we’re the ones infected—as if we’re the untouchables,” he said.

That comment exposes how the pandemic has brought into sharper relief one of society’s greatest shortcomings: the way we respond to crime.

When an incident occurs, society responds by rounding up the “bad apples,” sending them off to penal colonies, and pretending the work is done. It acts as if certain people are dangerous vectors of disruption that need to be sequestered.

But this process ignores the fact that anomie—most often from underfunding and overpolicing—is the true source of most crime. Merely isolating people in prison does nothing to solve this.

The degraded state of our communities remains untouched and un-remedied—leaving more people susceptible to criminal misbehavior.

It’s not surprising therefore that many correctional officers come to think of inmates as hosts of a contagion, as a threat. Not every officer. Maybe not even most. But the feeling is prevalent enough to affect inmates’ perception of staff.

The day after the demonstration, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee held a joint press conference with state corrections chief Stephen Sinclair. The governor stated that in addition to having WDOC work with the Department of Health to develop further safety measures, in an effort to bring down the prison population, he would consider options to release nonviolent inmates with 60 days or fewer remaining on their sentences.

For his part, Sinclair announced that, moving forward, face masks would finally be required for staff in all the prisons.

And there may be additional steps taken. Attorneys from Columbia Legal Services—a Seattle-based advocacy center—filed an emergency petition in their already-pending coronavirus case before Washington’s Supreme Court asking the Court to take action.

The Court responded by unanimously ruling on Friday that Inslee and WADOC must take all the necessary steps to shield inmates from the virus, and required them to provide in writing their “emergency plan for implementation.”

The ruling stopped short of ordering any inmates to be released, however.

While we should never condone aggressive disruptions in prison, at times it is possible to understand them. Especially this one.

Tomas Keen

Tomas Keen

After all, these men are just trying to prevent having their term-of-years sentences increased to coronavirus-induced death penalties.

The anxieties produced by the coronavirus epidemic are felt across the country. It should not surprise anyone that, for the thousands of individuals behind bars in America, with little control over their health and safety, the worry and fear are multiplied.

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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