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Corrections comes together during COVID-19

September 30, 2020

By Janelle Guthrie

DOC Communications

(Janelle Guthrie, DOC Communications)

With teams of individuals across the state highly trained in emergency response, the Department of Corrections frequently deploys employees with a wide range of skills from a variety of divisions to assist in incidents and law enforcement task forces both in-state and across the nation. From helping local law enforcement apprehend dangerous fugitives to assisting in response to natural disasters, these employees have seen their share of crises.

But Corrections’ Emergency Operations Manager Greg Miller says the COVID-19 crisis is the largest event the Department has ever experienced in his knowledge.

Deployments provide expertise and build skills

While the crisis itself is unprecedented, the ability to tap into expertise across the Department is something Miller counts on. It not only provides valuable resources, it also gives employees the opportunity to keep their skills fresh.

“It is rare that we have incidents of this significance but when we do, we always reach outside of the division effected and ask for help,” Miller said. “The Community Corrections Division routinely helps us with escapes and other incidents and thankfully we don’t have them on a great occurrence. Deploying staff from across the agency provides us with continual training opportunities for future events and gets us more familiar with other divisions work.”

COVID-19 response brings employees across the state together with purpose

In late January, employees at the Washington Department of Corrections received their first message from the agency’s infectious disease doctor explaining the Novel Coronavirus and providing basic tips to protect themselves and others. By early February, the Department had established an emergency operations center at headquarters to support the Washington State Emergency Management Division and the Washington State Department of Health in COVID-19 response.

From there, the Department quickly escalated its emergency response. Emergency management built out teams across areas of expertise and across geographic areas. Health Services evolved existing medical protocols to address the unique challenges and constantly changing guidance around COVID-19. Logistics and finance staff spent hours and days combing websites to procure the necessary thermometers, masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectants and other items to protect staff, the incarcerated population and the community. Human resources worked with medical staff to develop protocols for staff screened out of work due to exposure to the virus.

The agency also stood up a central web resource to provide consistent and transparent information to staff, families and other interested parties—and it updates the site, including a daily significant events timeline (pdf), at least once a day.

In those early days, the agency prepared for every contingency they could and coordinated with other agencies, knowing it was only a matter of time before they experienced their first staff or incarcerated COVID-19 positive case.

Coyote Ridge outbreak puts resources to the test

On May 13, 2020, the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (CRCC) experienced its first COVID-19 positive case among its incarcerated population—and by June 11, the facility had tallied a total 71 confirmed cases among the incarcerated.

At that point, with 33 individuals experiencing active symptoms and housed in medical isolation and 1,815 individuals on quarantine, the facility placed its entire Medium Security Complex on restricted movement to contain the spread of COVID-19 at the facility. The facility also suspended all food and textile production at the facility. These actions and others helped protect the men housed in the Minimum Security Unit, or camp, which to date remains free of COVID-19.

With access to outside medical resources in the community limited to a team of volunteer EMS professionals and hospitals more than one hour away, the Department deployed additional custody and health services staff to assist CRCC staff in caring for those incarcerated at the facility. They also reached outside the agency for assistance from the National Guard, the Department of Health, the Benton-Franklin County Health District, the 10th Civil Service Team and medical staff from Eastern State and Western State hospitals through the Department of Social and Health Services. They even hired a small team of contract staff.

The members of the Department’s Incident Management team, Emergency Response Teams from Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC), Washington Corrections Center (WCC), Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) and the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) and teams from the agency’s Health Services and Community Corrections divisions all sprang into action, leaving their families for weeks at a time, moving into hotel rooms in the Tri-Cities and driving roughly 45 minutes each way to CRCC each day to help.

Working with the state Department of Health and the state Emergency Operations Center, these teams helped establish the agency’s first mass testing protocol and began testing all the men housed in the Medium Security Complex as well as all staff at the facility on a serial basis.

They brought in two large tents, complete with restrooms and air conditioning and built out two more alternative housing units in the chapel and the gym. Individuals who tested positive were separated from those who tested negative so the facility could gradually lift the restrictions and allow more movement. Working together, both incarcerated individuals and staff, the facility was able to eradicate the virus and return to more normal operations.

A life-changing experience

Community Corrections Officer Tamara Farrington-Nichols from Tacoma called the experience “life-changing.” She and her colleagues worked, in appropriate PPE, with the COVID-19 positive individuals. They helped build the tents, monitored individuals in the tents, assisted medical staff going in and out of the tents and even helped serve meals.

“I volunteered because I saw a need that needed to be filled with our Department,” she said. “I love to help where I can during times of need. I never, in a million years, would have imagined myself as a CCO on the front lines helping out during a pandemic…It was great to see CCD working as a team, and meeting all the new faces! If I could give one word to describe this deployment it would be impactful.”

Community Corrections Officer Kyle Peart from the Bremerton field office brought experience from both correctional facilities and community corrections and called the experience exceptional.

“There can be, at times, an underlying division between the two sections,” Peart said. “I saw this an opportunity to lend a hand and show CCD is always willing to help.”

Medical Assistant Laura Rios from the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton said the custody and medical staff were always willing to help her and very grateful for her assistance. She described how good communication helped ease the tensions sometimes expressed by the men incarcerated at Coyote Ridge during this trying time.

“Some of the patients (in medical isolation) were upset because they didn’t understand why they needed to be there that long,” she said. “When nursing staff would explain to them the reasoning, they would begin to calm down.”

Community Corrections Officer Bryan Overaa from the Thurston County field office also brought Prisons Division experience with him to the deployment, sharing that “having the ability to go back and help support them again was rewarding and essential.”

A sense of duty

Work Crew Supervisor David Askren from the Wenatchee field office not only had Prisons experience but had previously worked at CRCC. Askren said his experience as a firearms instructor and former emergency response team member allowed him to help with medical transports at the facility.

“I wasn’t able to be fully utilized at this time in the field (due to COVID-19 restrictions),” he said. “So I felt obligated to be of more use. I knew my knowledge and training could be utilized during this time. It was a great experience and opportunity.”

Community Corrections Officer Melissa Olmstead from Everett Unit 2 brought experience serving as a Correctional Officer and Sergeant of a medical and psychiatric unit in Texas to her deployment, and said she felt “a sense of duty.”

“I volunteered because I wanted to be part of something new and innovative that DOC had not done before,” she said. “My time there was challenging and rewarding, and working together, we took an unknown situation to a working model of order.”

Nursing supervisor Jamie Newton from SCCC in Aberdeen joined the effort to assist as nursing staff were being mapped out due to potential exposure.

“Most of the nursing staff were working overtime shifts,” she said. “Add to that the extra duties of attending to our positive COVID-19 patients, and all medications and insulin needing to be delivered to the population in their housing units and there was a great need. The nursing staff of CRCC were amazing, very welcoming and appreciated all the help they received from other correctional facilities, headquarters and DSHS…I’m sure if we needed the help, they would come and help us.”

We’d do it all again

Community Corrections Officer Tracy Peters, who served multiple deployments, said despite the long hours and seven-days-a-week schedule, she’d do it all over again.

“Helping out at the prison was a challenging, but rewarding, and win-win experience,” she said. “COVID has been such a negative and impactful event—one of the biggest tragedies in our lifetime. But I am so grateful I was offered the opportunity to do this work and I would do it all again.”

Community Corrections Officers Brandon Keomalu from the Renton field office, Steven Norton from the Vancouver field office and Michael Ginez from the Bellingham field office shared the sentiment—as did Community Corrections Officer Anna Davis from the Auburn field unit.

“We were proud to be part of a team that made serious efforts in reducing COVID-19,” Ginez said. “We all made some great friends and memories while on deployment, and we would do it all over again.”

“It was a rewarding experience to know that we were an integral piece of the emergency management response that was responsible for reducing the further spread of COVID-19 to staff and/or offenders,” Norton said. “Best of all, I wouldn’t have met these two guys (Keomalu and Ginez) had it not been for this deployment. Sign me up anytime for round 2.”

“I really thought that we had made a huge impact in helping isolate the positive and negative inmates in order to minimize the outbreak,” Keomalu said. “It was a great experience because we got to witness multiple entities respond during a global pandemic, including the military. The staff at the facility were very relieved to see the additional help of CCD as well as other officers from different facilities. Great experience overall.”

“When I heard there was an urgent need for help, I volunteered,” Davis said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience…I’d do it again in a heartbeat…being able to contribute during a time of need for our agency was a great feeling.”

Thank you

Lt. Benjamin Porter from Stafford Creek, who worked as a supervisor with the CRCC Incident Command, said it was a pleasure to work with these staff and he’d love to work with them again.

“It was a pleasure to get to know them and watch them come together as a team,” he said, noting “they never complained about the workload they were tasked with. They asked for more work.”

Family members shared their gratitude for the effort to keep their loved ones safe as well.

“Just a little note of very sincere THANK YOU for all you have done, and continue to do, to keep the facility medically safe from what could have been a COVID-19 terrible situation. The responsibility you have for keeping the men safe is huge and I commend your every safety efforts. Thank you so much for keeping my son (and others) safe,” wrote one mother.

At this point, after peaking at 174 active cases on July 7, 2020 and logging a cumulative total of 233 cases and two deaths, CRCC has had no active cases since August 17, 2020.