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PRESS RELEASE: Corrections Secretary Outlines COVID-19 Response at Six Months

Released September 3, 2020, Updated September 4, 2020

Contact Janelle Guthrie, (360) 764-9791

Department of Corrections

Screenshot of the title slide for the DOC COVID-19 Response Media Availability Presentation

See the DOC COVID-19 Response Media Availability Presentation (pdf) from the September 3, 2020, virtual news conference.

TUMWATER – As the Washington State Department of Corrections passes the six-month mark of its active emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Secretary Steve Sinclair provided an update on the department’s current status, key elements of its response and a look to the future at a virtual news conference from its headquarters in Olympia.

“From the very beginning of this pandemic, my team and I have focused on a doctor-driven, data-driven and human-centered approach to try to keep COVID-19 out of facilities, to contain it once we have cases and to minimize the discomfort for the incarcerated population and our staff,” said Secretary Steven Sinclair. “We are continuously learning and we’ve certainly found things we could have done better, but we are dedicated to improving. It’s part of our commitment to operate a safe and humane corrections system and partner with others to transform lives for a better Washington.”

Current status

Across all correctional facilities, as of Sept. 1, 2020, the department had 31 individuals from the incarcerated population who have active cases of COVID-19 – all housed either at Airway Heights Correctional Center, Washington Corrections Center or the Washington State Penitentiary. None are hospitalized.

With a cumulative total of 447 incarcerated individuals who’ve tested positive and two deaths in the incarcerated population, 414 individuals have fully recovered. As of June 30, 2020, 15,837 individuals were incarcerated in Washington.

With serial mass testing at multiple facilities, the department has also had 156 staff test positive and has lost one correctional officer due to COVID-19. The department employs 6,448 in the prisons division alone and has close to 9,000 employees statewide.

"The loss of even one life in our incarcerated population to COVID-19 is too many, and we mourn the loss of our fellow officer, Berisford Morse,” Sinclair said. “That’s why it was so important to us to mount a strong defense against this virus.”

The Department updates data daily on its COVID-19 information center.

Comparison with other states

According to data compiled (pdf) by the Marshall Project, a news organization covering criminal justice, as of August 28, 2020:

  • Washington is 33rd of 50 for total COVID cases in a correctional facility;
  • Washington is 35th of 50 for percentage of incarcerated population positive – with a 2.80% positive in the population; and
  • Washington is 26th of 39 (states and the Bureau of Prisons) for mortality rates among states that report COVID-19 deaths – with a mortality rate of .45%.

COVID-19 Response at Corrections

Immediate actions: Emergency and medical protocols

Corrections joined the statewide response effort in February and opened its headquarters emergency operations center with health services staff on March 2, 2020.

The department issued its first COVID-19 screening, testing and infection control guidelines (pdf) on March 5, 2020 – prior to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance on COVID-19 response in correctional facilities – and has been continuous updating its guidelines based on the most recently CDC and state Department of Health guidance. It also launched a COVID-19 website with data, directives and helpful information for families, media and staff.

Isolate and contain

Effective March 13, Corrections had suspended visitation, tours and events with 4+ – recognizing the situation outweighed the hardship, and by March 15, the department required active screening of all employees and others entering any of the department’s offices or facilities.

In April, the department implemented the Governor’s proclamation (pdf) on rapid reentry and reduced its population by nearly 1,000 to enhance efforts to increase social distancing. Widespread mask requirements, increased social distancing and added emphasis on hygiene were implemented during the same period.

At the same time, Corrections recognized continued stress among its incarcerated population and started making a number of concessions to ease that stress, including negotiating two free phone calls a week (pdf), working with JPay to provide discounted services for email and video chat, entering into a contract to provide a movie channel in its facilities and more.

The department also made modifications at work release facilities and in community supervision to future protect and ease the effects of COVID-19 on those populations.

Testing, quarantine, isolation and treatment

When outbreak started to occur, the department followed specific protocols based on CDC guidelines and approved by the Department of Health. They relied on contract tracing, quarantine and medical isolation to limit the spread of the disease – recognizing limited movement contains the virus and prevents spread.

To ease the stress of medical isolation, the department provided additional amenities to prevent idleness and alleviate the feeling of punishment generally associated with isolation in a prison setting. Depending on the facility and individual situations, that could include TVs and hand-held video games in cell; continuation of quarterly food packages; access to commissary; phones at cell front – or alternatives; and personal property in cell.

As medical guidance evolved, facilities began testing and co-horting to allow for more movement, more quickly.

Keeping families connected and keeping the incarcerated populations safe and occupied continued to be of paramount importance. Incarcerated workers appreciated the ability to give back by making masks and other forms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as well as participating in beekeeping, art and gardening efforts.

Next steps: Serial staff testing/continued quality assurance

As testing materials became more readily available and continued guidance evolved, Corrections started serial testing of staff at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (pdf), expanding to multiple other facilities as a means of ensuring the health of staff at a time when multiple counties were experiencing surges.

“We appreciate our staff cooperating with serial testing as a means of preventing new cases from coming in, along with wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, honoring social distancing and practicing extra handwashing and other hygiene,” Sinclair said. “The incarcerated population feels vulnerable and we are doing what we can to protect them.”

The department is also deploying teams to conduct quality assurance checks. Areas with compliance concerns are counseled on ways to improve.

Looking to the future

Corrections has developed a Safe Start Corrections phased approach to reopening programming and education and resuming visitation, while continuing the agency’s work to infuse its mission, vision and values into its culture.

Investments and overtime

Over the course of this pandemic, Corrections has spent more than $29 million on its response, including:

  • More than 20,000 hours of overtime;
  • Over $6 million in supplies and equipment; and
  • Nearly $7 million in employer-paid leave due to employees being screened out for COVID-19.

“The cost to our agency is measured in much more than dollars – it’s measured in the dedication and hard work of staff across the Department of Corrections – as well as the work of our partners from local health districts and fellow state agencies, like the Department of Health and the National Guard,” Sinclair said. “The doctors, nurses, emergency personnel, correctional officers, community corrections staff, reentry staff, mental health professionals, administrative staff, leaders and everyone at Corrections and beyond deserve respect and gratitude for their work to protect our communities and those we serve.”

The pandemic has made staffing shortages at Corrections even more acute. The department addressed it through a rapid hiring initiative, hiring and training on an accelerated basis to help fill gaps as quickly as possible to reduce the strain on those already working at capacity and beyond.