Washington State Penitentiary

The Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla currently has about half of the total active cases of COVID-19 in the state’s prison system, with 162 inmates in isolation because they are showing symptoms.

A second outbreak of COVID-19 is raging inside two state prisons, infecting inmates and employees.

The minimum security unit at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell is locked in a quarantine after the latest outbreak.

Another 61 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since September, with 28 of those cases reported just this week.

It’s had the most cases of any Washington state prison facility, and two Connell inmates with the virus have died this year.

Also, as of Friday the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla reported 30 new COVID-19 cases this week.

It’s unclear if the penitentiary is also quarantining.

A Department of Corrections public information officer referred the Herald to the department’s website for information, but other than total infection numbers, the site had not been updated since Nov. 12.

According to the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health the active case count there is 60.

The Walla Walla prison has had a total of 217 confirmed cases among the incarcerated population as of Friday. The number of staff infections since the start of the pandemic here is 38, according to the latest update online.

The Connell and Walla Walla prisons are the only facilities showing growing infection rates.

A Washington Department of Corrections memo on Sept. 4 said at that time, there were no active COVID cases in the Coyote Ridge incarcerated population.

In all, the facility in Connell, 30 miles north of Pasco, has had 292 inmates and 108 staff members test positive as of Friday since the start of the pandemic in March.

After several calls to the state Department of Corrections asking for information on the Coyote Ridge outbreak, the Herald received a written response from the department that the quarantine began Nov. 11.

The prison gym still is being used to house the minimum security inmates who have tested positive, but the tents that were erected earlier this summer to separate sick prisoners are no longer being used, said the state.

It remains unclear on how many inmates and staff have been tested at Coyote Ridge, how many of those cases remain active or how many inmates are in isolation.

The state referred the Herald to the department’s COVID-19 information page, which shows only cumulative testing results for Washington’s prison system.

The Connell facility in north Franklin County houses about 2,500 inmates in minimum and medium security levels.

COVID-19 deaths

Earlier this week, the Office of the Corrections Ombuds posted a report on its investigations into the two inmates with COVID who died.

The office found in both cases there was a delay in access to care because the men did not immediately report their symptoms.

While the report noted the reason was unknown, it said that conditions of the medical isolation may have contributed to the problem.

“Minimal recreational activities, lack of interpersonal interaction, lack of access to personal belongings, foul tasting water, and DOC’s practice of treating those in medical isolation in the same manner as those in administrative segregation — were, according to CRCC staff, “not conducive to healthy recovery,” said the report.

Among the ombuds’ recommendations were mass symptoms screenings and temperature checks of the entire prison population, increased communication with families of those who have COVID-19.

It also recommended a change in care protocols for COVID patients, such as increased shower use — a regular shower schedule had been allowed only after seven days in isolation.

The Department of Corrrections’ formal response said it would update COVID-19 protocols, encourage inmates in isolation to use activities available, create more ways to increase communication with families, as well as give regular updates to inmates about the pandemic.

However, the agency said it’s not feasible to have mass screenings and temperature checks for all inmates, and it continues to encourage self-reporting of symptoms.

Staff serial testing for COVID has been implemented at all correctional facilities in the state, including Coyote Ridge.

Pandemic concerns

Throughout the pandemic some employees and the public have expressed concerns over the handling of the pandemic by Coyote Ridge administrators.

The Office of the Corrections Ombuds visited in May and reported there was a lack of social distancing, improper use of masks and staff members congregating close together without face coverings.

Coyote Ridge’s administration implemented education on COVID-19 standards, as well as safety protocols.

In addition, temporary sleeping quarters were created in the chapel, as well as tents installed outside to isolate patients.

Again in August, a nurse who had a contract with the prison during the summer wrote a letter to the Department of Corrections saying the state agency was neglectful in its response to the spread of the coronavirus at Coyote Ridge and outlined a list of concerns including what she called “inhumane conditions.”

The department told the Herald after the letter, the Department of Corrections headquarters health care quality team and others met with the Coyote Ridge health team to review processes and ensure continuous improvement on the facility’s COVID response work.

“The outbreak was very preventable and countless staff warned management this would happen if actions weren’t taken immediately,” an officer at the prison, who asked not to be named, told the Herald at the time.

The same employee said this week that management concerns continue.

“Our medical staff have been stretched to the breaking point and haven’t been backed up at all by management,” he said. “They have done all they can with what they’ve been given considering they’ve had no leadership from management in Olympia whatsoever.”

A written request to prison Superintendent Jeffrey Uttecht for an interview was not immediately returned.

Copyright 2020 Tribune Content Agency.