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DOC confirms partial food strike at penitentiary

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food tray

Some inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary are going on a “limited” food strike to protest practices at the prison, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections confirmed Saturday.

“Corrections is monitoring limited food refusal activity at the Washington State Penitentiary,” Communications Director Janelle Guthrie said.

Guthrie said five out of the prison’s 14 units began the strike Monday.

A Tri-Cities TV station reported Friday the protest was started to bring attention to what the inmates perceived as poor practices regarding COVID-19, according to two anonymous family members of inmates.

That report said complaints revolved around the inmates not seeing proper use of personal protective equipment by food handlers and not receiving proper gear themselves. There was also concern about food being shipped from other prisons where cases of the novel coronavirus spiked, including Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.

Guthrie said the DOC suspended all food and textile production at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Franklin County.

“The department shifted food production to the Airway Heights Corrections Center food factory and supplements with food from external vendors,” she said.

The Spokesman-Review reported on June 11 that the Coyote Ridge center had more than 100 cases of the coronavirus, which was the day the food processing switch was announced.

Two prisoners have died from the virus there, the DOC reported. The latest death came Monday and was announced Wednesday by the DOC.

The department also reported on Wednesday a total of 153 confirmed cases of the virus since the pandemic began among its staff and prisoners at Coyote Ridge.

Some inmates from Coyote Ridge are also reportedly being shipped to the Airway Heights facility after testing positive because it has a larger medical facility.

Guthrie said all food service staff are wearing appropriate protection gear at the Walla Walla center.

“We respect the rights of individuals to voice their concerns and encourage them to do so in a way that respects and protects the safety and security of other incarcerated individuals and our staff,” Guthrie said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year concern about the ease with which the virus could spread through prisons and jails.

The Washington State Penitentiary has confirmed four cases of the virus since the pandemic began. Two staff members and two prisoners have had the virus, according to the DOC website.

Jedidiah Maynes is a reporter for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin covering a variety of topics including local court cases. He enjoys making music and puns.