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Corrections centers add measures to protect against COVID-19

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WSP

Washington State Penitentiary

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UPDATE: A second DOC employee tested positive for COVID-19 late Friday, according to a DOC release today (Sunday). The employee worked on the third floor of headquarters in Tumwater. The person was last in the office on Wednesday and will stay home until recovered, the release stated. Those in contact with the person were asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms.

This story has been updated with new information from DOC regarding an identified case of COVID-19 among staff.

Washington and Oregon Department of Corrections officials have confirmed that, as of this afternoon, they have one novel coronavirus COVID-19 case among staff.

The positive test came from an employee at the Monroe Correctional Complex-Washington State Reformatory. And they are continuing to take precautionary measures.

In Washington, leaders suspended visitation and tours or events with four or more guests at its 12 facilities statewide, including extended family visits.

They have also restricted access for people except workers, at the Washington Corrections Center, Monroe Correctional Complex and Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Janelle Guthrie, communications director for the state DOC, wrote in an email that she was updating information continually, as it was changing daily.

The suspensions were announced Thursday as precautionary measures while the departments worked to enhance screening protocols for employees, inmates and others, including taking their temperatures and filling out questionnaires, according to an email.

“The department did not make this decision without extensive discussion,” DOC Secretary Steve Sinclair wrote in a statement.

“We know how important visitation and events are to our incarcerated population and their families. Leading up to this, we’d implemented increased cleaning protocols, distributed enhanced health services guidelines and encouraged the incarcerated population to take extra precautions.”

He wrote that while DOC anticipates moving to enhanced screening fairly soon to be able to restore visitation, “We encourage friends and family to keep in contact during this time utilizing JPay, video visiting, telephone calls and mail correspondence.”

In Oregon, officials also announced closure of its 14 statewide facilities Thursday.

Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton had been on “modified operations” periodically for about 30 days due to an influenza outbreak, according to Ron Miles, supervising executive assistant at the state prison.

That included closing visitation, encouraging everyone to wash hands frequently, increasing sanitizing efforts by wiping down high-contact surfaces with disinfectants, putting symptomatic inmates in masks and feeding them separately, he said.

At the Walla Walla County Jail, in-person visitation never has been available, according to Norrie Gregoire, director of Walla Walla County Corrections. They were allowed visitation via video kiosk.

This morning, inmates had their first appearances in Walla Walla County Court via video this morning instead of being escorted to the courtroom. Gregoire added the video was debuting, as it only had occurred in district court due to technological difficulties.

And at the Juvenile Justice Center, visitors were still allowed as of this morning, but they had to sit across from each other at tables and at least 6 feet apart beginning March 3.

“During a typical visitation session, one or two parents may come in to the facility, so we are able to accommodate adequate social distancing,” Greoire wrote in an email.

“However, all visitors are asked if they have any cold or flu-like symptoms. If a visitor answers in the affirmative or appears to have symptoms, they are not allowed in to visit their child.”

The next step would be to close visitation, he said, and provide free phone call visitation. That would be dictated by direction of the county’s Community Health Department, he said.

Social distancing, frequent handwashing, cough/sneeze covering and new admission screening for cold/flu symptoms was happening, with masks provided until further assessment could take place.

“At both facilities, we are cleaning more deeply, wiping down inmate phones, door pulls, tables, and speaking with all detained individuals about what they can do to help contain exposure,” Gregoire wrote.

At the Umatilla County Jail, in-person visitation via a phone through a glass window was still allowed as of this morning, according to Sheriff Terry Rowan.

Video also was available via Skype and tablets, he said, and the jail has done video for court appearances for “quite a while,” as they usually occur in Pendleton and Hermiston.

Changes included citing and releasing those accused of lesser crimes, such as criminal mischief and trespassing, he said, to reserve space for offenders with murder, assault and other serious crimes, as well as preserving open cells for those with severe offenses and symptoms.

“Thus far, knock on wood, we haven’t had anything like that,” he said.

And starting about two weeks ago, inmates also had to answer questionnaires about travel and contact with sick people, he said. Areas also were being thoroughly cleaned more frequently, he added.

“We’re also taking their temperature before they’re allowed inside,” he said.

Columbia County Jail officials didn’t respond to inquiries by press time.

Emily Thornton can be reached at

emilythornton@wwub.com or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.

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