Family members and friends of inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary say the Department of Corrections is not showing enough effort in combating the novel coronavirus.
On the heels of an ombudsman calling for the state’s prison system to make changes to protect staff members and prisoners, the loved ones looking from the outside have felt in the dark and have only heard bad news from their imprisoned friends and family on the inside.
As of Wednesday evening, the Penitentiary has had 114 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 since mid-July, all in one wing of the complex. Sixty-nine people imprisoned currently have the virus, and 10 staff members have it as well. The prison currently has a population of 2,284.
“Just because these men have committed crimes and are incarcerated, they are not any less human than you or I,” said Regina Eddy, of Moses Lake.
Eddy is engaged to Lance C. Werst, who is at the Walla Walla prison.
Werst was arrested in 2017 when he was found to have meth and weapons in his apartment. Now, Eddy says Werst is a changed man. He’s “found God” and is currently enrolled in a program where he’s learning skills to become an electrician once he’s released, Eddy said.
But now, Eddy said Werst is constantly fearing for his safety and the health of those around him.
On July 14, Eddy got a simple message from Werst through the Department of Corrections’ JPay communication system.
“Baby we are on lockdown. Will call when I can. I love you.”
Eddy said Werst tries to shield her from getting too worried, so she thinks he kept the message brief so that she might not think too much of it.
The next day, Werst told Eddy his unit was quarantined.
About a week later, Werst told her that they were all exposed to the coronavirus because an inmate worker was allowed to go in and out of quarantined areas where they knew infected inmates were residing.
The Department of Corrections did not respond to questions regarding the lockdown that week, but DOC spokesperson Janelle Guthrie did confirm that a “partial food strike” was happening as prisoners asked for more to be done to prevent any spread of the virus.
Guthrie said in an email Wednesday that officials at the Penitentiary noticed an uptick of COVID-19 in Unit 6 of the East Complex at the end of July and placed it in a lockdown immediately.
“It is super crazy here right now,” Werst wrote to Eddy on July 24. “... (Don’t) worry I am fine.”
Werst was able to speak with Eddy on the phone eventually and said the concerns were spreading among inmates and staff alike. He told her he was mailing her a letter signed by both prisoners and guards that detailed the problems and complaints.
The main issues are lack of proper social distancing, the continuation of prisoner transfers and poor personal protective equipment.
Guthrie said prison staff takes “the responsibility to protect the health and safety our staff and incarcerated population very seriously.
“We are working hard to keep people safe.”
A woman from Otis Orchards, Washington, who wanted to remain anonymous at the request of her boyfriend who feared retaliation from prison leadership, said her boyfriend has had similar complaints.
Her boyfriend had a cellmate removed when Gov. Jay Inslee released low-level convicted people from the prisons earlier this year. However, the woman’s boyfriend said he was immediately given another cellmate.
On top of that, leaders at the prison, she said, were going to cells and doing routine sweeps without masks on. When the woman’s boyfriend told the leaders that they could be carrying the coronavirus between cells, they allegedly told him to stop worrying about it.
The woman also said that her boyfriend and other prisoners were even afraid to visit the nurse’s office because they guessed that’s where some people were contracting the virus.
When the outbreak began in July, outside visitors had already been blocked from entering for a few months at the prison. The man told his girlfriend it seemed obvious that the infections were coming from staff members and prison transfers.
While her boyfriend did say there were fewer people in some common areas, communal surfaces weren’t being wiped down and masks were not regularly being worn.
Meanwhile, Werst told Eddy on Monday that he had contracted COVID-19, although he was feeling fine.
He told her he assumed he got it from his cellmate. Werst was placed into further isolation, but was able to get a message to Eddy on Tuesday.
“I just found out we only get a 4-minute shower once a week.”
Eddy was beside herself.
“So many questions have been racing through my mind,” Eddy said. “If he really does have it, what are they doing to take care for him? A 4-minute shower once a week? And this after he (tests) positive?”
More frequent showers were a recommendation in the ombudsman’s report.
Guthrie said in an email that the prison is requiring social distancing of all staff and inmates. She said Washington State Penitentiary is also currently working on ways change the flow of people coming into the buildings to enhance social distancing.
A nurse who recently worked at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center recently told The Spokesman-Review that the prison was a “petri dish” for the virus as it spread among inmates and staff.
Coyote Ridge had the largest outbreak to start with, but the DOC continued its common practice of swapping prisoners between facilities.
Guthrie said the agency, however, has reduced “inter-facility transfers” by nearly 75%.
The woman from Otis Orchards said her boyfriend noticed a prisoner he hadn’t seen before in a common area at the prison recently. He told her that he found out the prisoner came from another facility the day before and had not been quarantined.
“It seems to me that these inmates are going from Coyote Ridge to (WSP),” she said. Prisoners are supposed to go to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington, before being transferred, but the woman said that has not been the case in her boyfriend’s experience.
Guthrie said, in contrast, that all transferred inmates are being quarantined for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms.
The Otis Orchards woman said her boyfriend was only getting disposable masks along with staff members, which they were expected to use for about a week at a time. Instead, she said he ripped apart one of his shirts and made masks out of it.
When calling her on the phone, he said he wipes down the phone with his shirt because it isn’t wiped between uses and it was all he had to clean it with.
Meanwhile, Werst wrote to Eddy stating a similar story.
“(We) aren’t given proper masks, only disposable ones that we have to wear for days and days,” he wrote on Aug. 7.
It also appeared to Werst that masks were not strictly required of officers, nor was it clear to him that the staff members were getting tested regularly.
Guthrie said anyone entering a DOC facility must be screened for symptoms, including a temperature check, and they will soon begin serial testing of all staff members, according to an agency document.
According to another Department of Corrections document, there are situations where staff is not required to wear masks, but most person-to-person interactions do require it.
Guthrie also said they are trying to increase the amount of hand sanitizer available, and they are asking inmates and staff members to regularly wash their hands.
A different story
The changes desired by the two women with loved ones inside the prison are mostly in line with the ombudsman’s report.
But the Otis Orchards woman said even if there are positive changes being made, there is still reason to be tepid about the DOC’s response.
She said that after her boyfriend heard about a killing at Airway Heights Corrections Center — where an inmate was reportedly housed with his sister’s rapist — he became concerned about decision making from leadership.
The woman had to relay information about the virus outbreaks at other state prisons to him. She also was the one to inform him of the outbreak at the Washington State Penitentiary.
But the woman’s son has a different story.
She said her son is about to be released from the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Kuna, Idaho. He contracted COVID-19 and was placed in isolation.
She said he was given zinc tablets in addition to his normal supplements. Nurses checked on him frequently. Prisoners in isolation were given sanitized, cordless phones to make calls. He told her that despite the outbreak, he felt protected.
“They’re totally taking care of guys and girls who are out there,” the woman said. “But Washington state is not doing that.”
The woman said if it’s something “we have to do on the outside” to prevent COVID-19, then it should probably be done on the inside of prisons too.