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Opinion: “We are deeply concerned” an open letter to Jay Inslee

Dear Governor Inslee,

We are deeply concerned by the dangers the COVID-19 pandemic creates for our incarcerated population in Washington.

We have already seen COVID-19s devastating impact on the residents at LifeCare. Our nursing homes house many of our older and often medically fragile community members and we recognize that social distancing measures are essential to saving the lives of people in this vulnerable population. As your office and the CDC have advised to limit or restrict visitors and screen all staff for symptoms, news articles have popped up which describe nursing home residents feeling as though they are in jail. Some families have brought their loved ones home in order to care for them so they will not experience this level of social isolation.

The prison population shares many of the same risk factors as the nursing home populations – close quarters and shared social and dining spaces, close contact with staff coming in from the outside community, and despite policies that state otherwise, poor access to adequate healthcare. This is the same for county jails and detention centers. However, unlike the residents of nursing homes, there has been no possibility for incarcerated people to go home. People who are imprisoned, jailed, and detained in facilities such as the Northwest Detention Center will continue to face increasing levels of isolation at best during this pandemic. At worst, many elderly and immune-compromised people in prisons will contract COVID-19, and with little to no access to medical care, die.

Individuals in prisons across Washington State have already been exposed to the virus, and we expect it to spread like wildfire endangering the lives of prisoners, staff members, volunteers and visitors. Just as COVID-19 has presumably spread far beyond currently confirmed numbers in our outside communities, it has likely spread inside prisons and other detention facilities.

At Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington State Reformatory’s A and B units are locked down due to possible exposure from a staff member who tested positive for the virus. Also as of March 13, all visitation has been suspended state-wide.

What does your office and the Department of Corrections plan to do to ensure the safety of our incarcerated community members?

Multiple concerned groups, including Northwest Justice Project, Washington Defender Association, and Sexual Violence Law Center, have asked for a response plan from the Department of Corrections, specifically from Tomas Fithian, Pandemic Response Incident Commander for DOC. Information has come very slowly and sporadically. When information has been shared, it has become very clear that DOC does not have a cohesive plan. In the face of the DOC Health Services Division’s documented failures, multiple lawsuits, and your Ombuds office’s most recent scathing report about inadequate health care in Washington prisons, this is extremely concerning.

La Resistencia has also called for investigation into healthcare access for people detained at the Northwest Detention Center, a need which has become increasingly urgent in this pandemic. We believe that all people, regardless of immigration status or incarceration status, deserve quality healthcare.

In light of these concerns, we, as educators, legal and healthcare workers, social workers and mental health professionals, activists, DOC facility volunteers and sponsors, and family, friends and community members of incarcerated and detained people, ask that you:

– Release comprehensive information to the public about plans to protect and administer healthcare to incarcerated people

– Provide free access to sanitation products and CDC guidelines for individuals inside prisons and other WA detention facilities

– Provide doctors visits upon first request, including free testing for COVID-19

– Provide free and full access to phone calls and video calls

– Release all chronically ill, elderly, and people awaiting commutation in Washington State prisons, county jails, and immigrant detention facilities.

– Release people from the Northwest Detention Center who have been detained for being undocumented

– Reduce stress on facilities by using strategies such as home monitoring, early release and clemency

We understand that there are many pressing issues at this time. COVID-19 has already had an acute impact on our lives and will chronically affect our social, political, economic, and healthcare structures.

In any public health or environmental crisis, we inevitably shift out of living in ways we have accepted as normal and unchanging. For those of us who have lived in comfort and security, it comes as a shock. We must not recoil in fear, but rather find creative solutions to live and act with dignity, care and compassion. And those solutions must include our incarcerated and detained community members, who depend on our collective attention and action as well as your legislative power to stay alive and healthy.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Some concerned residents of the Puget Sound

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