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Larch inmates say close conditions present COVID-19 risk

It’s difficult to exercise social-distancing measures in prison, when your bunkmate is hovering a few feet above you, or if you share a bathroom with dozens of others.

But even as Clark County’s COVID-19 curve shows increasing evidence of flattening, inmates at Larch Corrections Center near Yacolt are dealing with this reality: Even at a minimum-security prison, social distancing is impossible.

“There’s no social distancing. Once it hits the prison, it’s going to explode. It’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Freddie Deleon, 32, who’s been housed at Larch since January and has about a year left to serve. “I don’t want to get to the end of it and end up dying from corona. This stuff is scary. People are out there dying, and it’s not just the old.”

There are no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in staff or inmates at Larch, which has the capacity to house 480 inmates.

However, as of Friday, there were 14 positive cases among inmates housed at other prisons and work-release facilities, and 26 positive cases among Washington Department of Corrections staff. (The majority of cases have been at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County, the second-largest facility in Washington.) More than 300 inmates have been tested for COVID-19. There were 21 tests pending for incarcerated individuals, 77 inmates were in isolation and 995 were in quarantine, according to statistics from the Department of Corrections.

Among its strategies to reduce the spread of the virus, the Department of Corrections has been working to release inmates in order to bolster physical distancing in its 12 correctional facilities.

A number of moves since late March put pressure on the state to take swift action. Columbia Legal Services filed a lawsuit on behalf of five inmates, arguing more needs to be done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons. Earlier this month, inmates at Monroe staged a demonstration after six tested positive for coronavirus there. Then, the petitioners filed an emergency motion, fast-tracking the lawsuit, with the state Supreme Court. The high court ordered the state to “immediately exercise their authority to take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety” of inmates.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation April 15 to allow for the early release of about 1,100 inmates statewide, specifically those serving sentences for nonviolent offenses, or those related to drugs and alcohol.

Inmates within 60 days of their release dates were being considered for commutation. The Department of Corrections is also allowing some inmates to serve up to six months of their sentence on electronic home monitoring, through a Rapid Reentry program. Some inmates in work-release settings are being granted emergency furloughs.

Inmates and advocates for them say it’s not enough.

But hours after hearing oral arguments in the case Thursday, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision rejected the Columbia Legal Services lawsuit. It found the petitioners had not proved the state is failing in its duties to protect inmates from COVID-19.

Concerns at Larch

In an April 17 interview from Larch, Deleon said he believes more people need to be released to allow for successful social distancing in the prisons. He said he shares a cubicle with two other people, and his bed has an occupied bunk above it.

When the pandemic first spread here, it seemed corrections staff were unsure how best to proceed, Deleon said.

“It was hectic — it really was,” he said.

Things have improved somewhat, he added, especially after the Supreme Court handed down its initial order.

Deleon said inmates were given supplies to make masks: cloth, coffee filters and two rubber bands. They were told to start wearing them, he said, and he noticed more corrections staff wearing masks.

Other strategies recently implemented include suspending in-person visitation except for attorneys, modifying inmates’ movements, closing the weight room and dividing the exercise yard in half so units can be separated. Deleon said staff were also setting up extra cubicles to move people from top bunks. Disinfectant solution is available to wipe down the telephones between uses.

Still, as he spoke to The Columbian via the phone, Deleon said he was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other inmates.

His biggest concern, though, are the inmates being transferred to Larch, as well as corrections staff and teachers who are coming and going.

“That’s who’s going to bring it in,” he said. “It’s stressful for sure. Everyone is on edge. Everyone has family members that we care about and are worried about. The stress level is up and the tension is up.”

The Department of Corrections did not respond to The Columbian’s request for information about its COVID-19 response or changes implemented at Larch. Efforts to reach a union spokesperson for corrections staff were unsuccessful.

The agency, on its website, has said that it’s implemented enhanced screening protocols for staff, inmates and others entering all of its facilities. It is restricting transfers, unless they are medically necessary, there’s a security concern or to prevent overcrowding. It also told the Supreme Court that face masks are now mandatory, and hand sanitizer is available to inmates.

Brian Warnock, 35, who’s serving the tail-end of a sentence at Larch for a string of Snohomish County robberies, wrote a letter to Inslee last month asking that he be given a second chance in the Graduated Reentry program. The program allows inmates an opportunity to serve an expanded portion of their sentence in work release. (On March 16, the Department of Corrections prohibited community movement for inmates in the program.)

Warnock was recently booted from the program and had time added to his sentence after he was caught using a cellphone, according to his mother, Jennifer Warnock.

She doesn’t think the punishment fits the crime, especially with the pandemic in play.

“He could literally get this and die, all over a cellphone,” said Warnock, 53.

Local inmates released

By the end of the week, there were 84 inmates from Clark County on the Department of Corrections lists for some variation of release. Thirty-two inmates had their sentences commuted. Another 49 were scheduled for electronic home monitoring, and three were furloughed from a work-release program.

Inslee’s order called for the inmates to be released by April 22, or “as soon as can reasonably be achieved thereafter.”

The Clark County inmates’ convictions include drug possession, delivery or manufacturing; vehicle and property theft; burglary; unlawful possession of firearms; malicious mischief; forgery; driving under the influence; and hit-and-run injury, to name a few.

Jennifer Warnock said she supports the state’s release strategies, such as the Rapid Reentry program, but she doesn’t think her son qualifies because of his crimes, which included a home-invasion robbery, according to The Daily Herald in Everett.

“We live in a society where people say, ‘Too bad. They deserve it,’ ” she said. “I’ve put myself in the shoes of my son’s victims a hundred times. I understand their fear and anger, but at the same time, he wasn’t given the death penalty.”

She added that the Department of Corrections isn’t releasing violent offenders, such as convicted rapists or murderers. The inmates who are being released are about six months away from their scheduled release date.

“People in prison are people too, with family who care about and love them,” she said.

Vancouver’s Joshua Johnson is among the inmates on the list for Rapid Reentry. He was sentenced in August 2017 to five years in prison for a hit-and-run crash in Clark County that cost a man the lower half of his left leg. Department of Corrections records show Johnson, 34, was scheduled for release in August.

Vancouver attorney Michael Green, who represented Johnson in that case, declined to comment on his release. However, Green said he agrees with the Rapid Reentry model.

“Since there is so much that is currently unknown about the coronavirus, and all that we can say for sure is that it’s highly transmissible and deadly in some percentage of cases, I strongly support the state of Washington’s efforts to reduce our prison population during this pandemic,” Green said in an email. “Yes, I realize that the prisoners in the Rapid Reentry program won’t be serving their full sentences as originally contemplated, but that’s a much, much fairer result than sentencing some of these prisoners to death based purely on how their bodies react to the infection.”

Johnson’s pending release was news to his victim’s family.

“I’m not happy. I’m really not happy,” said Nancy Peterson, the mother of Johnson’s victim, Paul Adams. “I’m still very hurt and very angry about what he did to my son.”

She said she doesn’t understand how Johnson can be deemed a “nonviolent offender” when his crimes left her son severely and permanently injured.

“I agree with some people that didn’t have major crimes. The more they can let loose to keep this horrible, horrible virus down the better. But people like Josh? No. He just left (my son) there.”

Striving for social distancing

The inmates’ petition through Columbia Legal Services had sought an order to release thousands more than the state’s current limited releases.

It proposed the release of those who are 50 or older, have serious medical conditions, are pregnant or are mentally ill. It also requested the release of inmates scheduled to be released within 18 months, specifically those whose release doesn’t require victim notification, attorney Nicholas Straley said during oral arguments Thursday.

Prior to oral arguments, the Department of Corrections told the court that, on average, it releases about 700 people per month, which has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic. It also changed its response to community custody violators, resulting in a drop there.

The prison population was expected to fall below 16,000 as of the weekend, Assistant Attorney General John Samson said during the hearing.

Samson argued the current limited release strategy is enough: with resources already stretched, releasing thousands would break the system.

He said that by the weekend, Monroe’s minimum-security unit would be able to ensure 6-foot social distancing. The state also plans to continue evaluating the situation and may order additional releases as appropriate.

“The department will, as much as possible, strive to guarantee 6-foot distancing for all prisoners,” Samson said.


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