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One year later – Corrections’ response to COVID-19

March 24, 2021

By Rachel Ericson

Communications Office

Man getting temperature taken

A DOC employee demonstrates the active screening process by getting a temperature check before entering the work site (Photo by DOC employee prior to mask mandate)

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As the nation reached one year since the beginning of COVID-19 restrictions, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) looks back on its response to COVID-19, first in support of other state agencies, then providing much needed produce to the state’s food banks, assisting with the low supply of hand sanitizer across the state all while following health and safety protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At the height of the pandemic and the post-holiday surge that heavily impacted the State, the department had 8 prison facilities on outbreak status, and much of programming and movement ceased to further protect staff and incarcerated individuals from the disease.

Now, there have been 6,169 recovered incarcerated individuals and as of March 22, 2021, only two active cases of COVID-19 in the incarcerated population. Additionally, there are now no facilities on outbreak status and Corrections is looking for ways to bring a sense of normalcy back.

Early 2020

In February of 2020, people around the globe were just hearing of COVID-19 for the first time. Corrections began supporting the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) response to COVID-19 on February 9, 2020, by providing members of Corrections' Department Incident Management Team (DIMT) to help the statewide response. The department officially opened its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at headquarters in response to COVID-19 on March 2, 2020, whose members represent every division across the agency.

Corrections took a number of steps early on to ensure the safety of those incarcerated in correctional facilities and work release, as well as those on community supervision. These steps include suspending visitation and other in-person programming to reduce outside exposure, encouraging pro-active precautions like hand-washing, extra cleaning and social distancing, and reducing the number of face-to-face contact visits community corrections officers have to make with those they supervise.

To demonstrate the department's commitment to openness and transparency, Corrections posted, and continues to update, important information on the COVID-19 Information Center, including memos, resources and decision points.

COVID-19 protocols were first developed, and have since been updated as new information from trusted health agencies like DOH and the CDC update their own guidance.

Department Incident Management Team (DIMT)

In addition to the internal response, the DIMT provided logistics support to DOH along with the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and the Washington Military Department – Emergency Management Division with the statewide response to COVID-19. The support is possible because the Department of Corrections trains employees in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the national structure for emergency response enabling state and federal agencies that typically do not work together, to operate under the same structure and unified command during an emergency.

“Real world emergencies, whether it be a flood, hurricane, volcano or pandemic, provide the opportunity for our agency employees to hone their skills in emergency management and incident command,” said Emergency Operations Manager Greg Miller. “Assisting other agencies drastically increases our knowledge, skills and abilities to manage our own emergencies when they arise in the department. Above and beyond DIMT, the Department of Corrections staff statewide are always ready and willing to help out. These staff are doing great work in the offices, prisons and community during this time.”

The DIMT provided command, logistics and planning staff to the Unified Command at the State Emergency Operations Center. DOC staff also provided communications support as the state stood up its Joint Information Center. Working together during an emergency allows each state agency to continue its operations, work together as a team and have a role in helping Washington to 'flatten the curve'.

Throughout the pandemic the DIMT provided resources to facilities in outbreak status, and health districts across the state, who needed relief and assistance with their own response.

Next Steps

As cases decrease, Corrections is working to determine next steps. The department takes very seriously the health and safety of those in its custody and its staff and will continue to follow guidance from the CDC and DOH to determine when it is safe to resume programming and visitation.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available to Corrections’ staff and soon will be available to all incarcerated individuals, depending on the supply available to the state, the hope is to see as many staff and incarcerated become vaccinated as possible. Part of these initiatives involve ensuring that accurate and trustworthy information is available for those who have questions and continued partnerships with external stakeholders, such as the Statewide Family Council, to ensure those in our custody have all the tools they need to make an equitable decision.

Corrections remains committed to its’ mission to improve public safety, by positively changing lives.