How Not to Manage a COVID-19 Outbreak in Prison

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Photo by poirpom via Flickr

Ten months ago I described in The Crime Report how the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) was failing to take virus protocols seriously, failing to address the threat of overcrowding, and failing to keep staff and prisoners safe.

At the time just three DOC employees and one contractor had tested positive, but the potential for more was staring us in the face. A month later, I reiterated the point, explaining how increased failures led to six prisoners testing positive as well as a standoff between prisoners and guards.

DOC officials brushed off these warnings with undisguised pococurantism, a special type of indifference reserved for those without real oversight. Sure, on the surface screening measures were developed, mask mandates imposed, and quarantine and isolation procedures adopted. But none had enough teeth to prevent the virus from entering prison facilities. None sought to reduce to safe levels the number of people confined.

Conditions were primed for disaster.

The Outbreak

“They’re taking me to medical isolation. I’ll call when I can. I love you.” These short sentences make up the entirety of a rushed email sent from my prison cell on New Year’s Eve, moments after learning a COVID-19 test, taken the day before, had come back positive.

I was one of hundreds who contracted the virus during the months of December and January at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), a facility that holds less than 800.[i] And no matter where you stand on the whole morality-of-keeping-humans-caged-in-prisons-where-officials-fail-to-take-safety-seriously-and-all-the-while-a-deadly-virus-rages-across-the-nation issue, the catalyst of this WSR outbreak should give pause to us all.

Two of the four living units at WSR—C and D Units—had just returned to normal operations following a two-week quarantine, from Dec. 7 to 22, sparked by a COVID-19 scare. Three days after the quarantine ended, on Christmas Eve, a prisoner from C Unit went to the medical floor with flu-like symptoms. Although nauseous and coughing up blood, he had no fever and his instant-result COVID test came up negative.

So medical staff took an additional sample for the more accurate PCR test, but sent him back to the living unit for the night.

Excited to be back, and feeling lottery-winner lucky for testing negative, the prisoner shared with associates what happened and let others know that the unit would not be going back on quarantine.

Yet the next morning the result from the PCR test came in, and it was positive. Guards rushed the prisoner back out of the unit and, after contact tracing, snatched a few others who had been seen with him the night before. The entire unit, as well as D Unit, was placed on quarantine.

This may sound like an adequate response, one that would prevent or at least slow spread of the virus, but only until we look at how the quarantine was managed. Prisoners were let out of their cells in groups of 16 for a single 40-minute interval each day. Yet, in a decision that leaves us now head-scratching, incarcerated workers were told by guards to fetch ice and water for the prisoners not currently on their out time.

This means that an incarcerated worker would go cell-to-cell grabbing water pitchers, filling them at the ice bin and water spigot, and returning them to the waiting prisoners.

It would be hard to imagine a better way, given the circumstances, to contaminate each prisoner and spread the virus.

Medical staff came to C and D Units five days later, on Dec. 30, and tested every prisoner. When the results came back the next morning, scores were positive, including every incarcerated worker that had been fetching ice and water. Both units were immediately locked down while administration made room elsewhere in the prison to take those who had been infected.

By the end of the day more than 70 prisoners had been moved to solitary confinement for medical isolation.

Over the days that followed more tests were given, and in the end only 13 people from C Unit stayed negative—the same was true for roughly 50 people from D Unit.[ii]

Taken to Solitary Confinement

Prisoners who tested positive, including me, were allowed to carry a paper sack with a few belongings as they were taken to solitary confinement for medical isolation. Solitary confinement, remember, is in normal times used to punish prisoners.[iii]

All those taken were ensured the move was for safety only, not punishment, and they would be given regular access to TVs, phones, and showers. And for some this was partly true. Roughly 20 of these prisoners had TVs in their new cells, and phones and showers were offered twice in nine days.[iv]

But for many more it wasn’t true. As one prisoner, Daniel Dodd, recalls, “I went nine days in a cell not only without a TV, but I didn’t even have a book or pillow. Every day I requested them from the guards and each time I was either ignored or lied to. Some guards would simply say ‘too bad’ while others would promise to bring them by on their next walk through.”

Dodd never received either.

Still, others had it worse. After a couple of days, with more prisoners coming over from the unit, some were forced to double up in single-person cells—one on the bunk and another on the floor. So, sick with a deadly virus, puking from both ends, these prisoners had to share a cell, and toilet, with absolutely no privacy.

Sounds a bit like punishment to me, too.[v]

After the first weekend in solitary, things for one elderly prisoner got as bad as they could. While one officer did a wellness check—which, nomenclature aside, amounts to nothing more than looking in cell windows—I heard him stop at a cell, pound on the door, and say, “Hey! Hey! How long have you been on the floor?”

From the cell came a feeble response, “Maybe ten minutes.”

Medical staff came in quickly, strapped the man to a gurney, and wheeled him away.

A few nights later, on Jan. 7, I learned from a guard that the man would never be coming back.

He had died—apparently from complications created by falling on the concrete floor.

Moved to the Gymnasium

After nine days in solitary, a group of 42 now-asymptomatic prisoners, again including me, were moved into the gymnasium. The following evening 30 additional prisoners were moved over, bringing the number to more than 70. Then, at 11:00 p.m., after another batch of positive tests, a group of prisoners came in directly from C and D Units. When the moving stopped in the early morning hours there were nearly 110 people in the gym.

With so many sardines packed into a single can, social distancing was no longer an option. The wooden-frame cots arranged in rows could not be separated by more than, at most, three feet.[vi] And since the guards left only one bathroom open at all times, giving access to the others only every few hours, long lines were inevitable.

By midway through the next day, the bathroom situation became an issue. Beyond the one toilet inside, several temporary restrooms—four trailers, two with bathrooms and two with showers—were set up on a fenced-in concrete pad outside a door at the back of the gym. Even though this was a fence within a fence within a wall, the guards felt we needed to be monitored whenever we were there.

And since no guard wants to stand around “monitoring” all day, the area was open for only short and unpredictably timed periods.

For obvious reasons of discomfort, this wasn’t going to work. A group of prisoners got together and told the guards to “post someone there at all times because we always need access to the bathrooms.”

The guards said no, the prisoners pushed harder. Soon enough a guard stood at the door all afternoon. And by the end of the day, the guard was gone but the door was open. It was a small victory.

From the mood of the guards it was clear they didn’t have a clue about what supplies should and should not be given. This lack of guidance meant that prisoners again and again had to make their discontent known and push for nearly every essential item—drinking water, clean clothes, hygiene items, phones, and much more—eventually winning out on most of them.

The problem with this situation was highlighted by C Unit prisoner Rob Alderson: “These things shouldn’t need to be battled for. Prisoners shouldn’t have to raise hell just to be able to eat and drink at appropriate times, put on clean clothes, and contact their loved ones.”

It shouldn’t be this way, but DOC’s botched response made it this way.

To calm the situation a DOC official came to the gym and shared that each prisoner would be moving back to the living unit “fourteen days plus one” [vii]from the date of his positive COVID-19 test. Luckily this piece of information turned out to be true, and on January 14 I returned to the living unit.

Back in the Living Unit

After returning to the unit, I assumed that dealing with mismanagement would be over. Years in the system should have taught me otherwise.

The 13 people who had not tested positive were taken somewhere else—we weren’t told where—for their own safety. And now, even though everyone currently in the unit has tested positive, gone through medical isolation, and been at least 14 days symptom free, we are confined to our cells.

It’s been 72 hours since my last shower and 48 since I could last call my loved ones. I ask the guards why, if there is no one left to infect and no one who is currently sick, we remain locked down. None of them know.

Botched response? Mismanaged isolation? I think so.


Some will surely say that my criticism goes too far, that instead of judging we should support DOC workers and forgive their mistakes. We are, after all, living through an unprecedented pandemic.

Tomas Keen

To that I say, “Think again.”

It’s always been true that when reality is unpleasant, realists are unpopular. And the reality is that of the 18,000 people in Washington State prisons, nearly 6,000 have contracted COVID-19 [viii] —and it’s still not over.

I’ve been speaking of the danger for ten months, and so have many others, warning that lackadaisical staff and lazy protocols are risking lives.

And in this WSR outbreak, that cost at least one life already. What took place here was not a surprise, nor was it unpreventable.

For those two reasons some would say it’s unforgivable.

Tomas Keen , currently incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory, is a recent graduate of the University Beyond Bars. In the last decade, he has co-developed and co-instructed writing and debate classes for other prisoners while also striving for justice reform as a member of the Concerned Lifers Organization. Once released, he hopes to attend law school before starting a career as an advocate for juveniles and emerging adults in the criminal legal system. He welcomes feedback, both supportive and critical.


[i] Thousands more have contracted the virus in prisons statewide. See the latest infection count on the Washington State Department of Corrections website.

[ii] It goes without saying, though I’ll say it anyway, these numbers could shrink in the days ahead.

[iii] I discussed the implications, problems namely, of using solitary confinement for medical isolation in a previous column for The Crime Report. See “Stopping Coronavirus Spread Inside Prisons: A Simple Fix,” April 1, 2020.

[iv] Even with these amenities, however, simply being in solitary is itself mentally straining. Nola bene: Painted in all-cap stencil letters on the back of my grey steel cell door were the words, “TO CONSERVE WATER, THIS BUILDING USES RECLAIMED WATER TO FLUSH TOILETS.” Set aside for a moment the mind-bending confusion educed by seeing progressive, eco-friendly ideas adorning walls in a den of torture. Now imagine spending nights suspiciously wondering if the guards–who are irritated from the four days of you asking, with no luck mind you, to use the phone and shower–have the ability to reverse the cycle and force freshly flushed toilet water through the sink spigot. It sounds crazy, yes, but time spent in solitary makes you crazy.

[v]  This goes in an end note because, while it can’t make up for the deplorable treatment by guards and mismanagement by decision-makers, it still merits mentioning. Medical staff working in the solitary unit were both attentive and compassionate. They made regular rounds, even working overtime on a Sunday, and treated us like patients, not prisoners. Perhaps they were simply following the footsteps of healthcare workers elsewhere, being heroes of this pandemic; but still, if I had pots and pans, I’d bang them together in appreciation.

[vi] Many of these wooden cots didn’t last long. Those first two nights were peppered with tree-snapping-in-a-windstorm-type sounds as some of the cot frames buckled under the weight of grown men, sounds punctuated by curses from disgruntled people now lying on the floor. Days later, the more adipose men were brought cots with metal frames. Those seemed to last.

[vii] Why professionals insist on saying basic things in complicated ways is unexplainable. Well, I suppose I could explain it–feelings either of inadequacy or superiority etc.–but it probably isn’t relevant to this forum and would likely be edited out anyway. The point is, he could have just said 15 days.

[viii][viii] See updated numbers on DOC’s website.

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