POLITICS

What It's Like To Wait For Coronavirus To Get To You In Prison

An employee at a Washington state prison tested positive for coronavirus. Prisoners fear they’re next.

At around 2 a.m. on March 13, Atif Rafay was startled awake inside his prison cell to find a printed out piece of paper dropped on his bed. A prison employee, the memo said, had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and had potentially exposed prisoners in two units to it.

The employee, who last came to work at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state on March 8, took the test two days later and received the results on March 12. That evening, about 50 prisoners crowded into a room for movie night. They watched ”Harriet,” unaware that they had potentially been exposed to the coronavirus. 

The men “were not taking precautions at all,” said Rafay, who was a subject of ”The Confession Tapes,” a Netflix documentary series about possible false confessions. At that point, he continued, “we weren’t worried about it.” 

The state Department of Corrections didn’t receive the information about the employee who tested positive until late on March 12, the department’s communications director Janelle Guthrie wrote in an email. 

By the next morning, the A and B units of the prison were placed in “precautionary quarantine” with “restricted movement” for the next nine days. Some days, two prisoners said, they were only allowed to leave their cells in groups of 20 for about 30 minutes a day, enough time to either shower or use the phone.

Monroe Correctional Complex
Monroe Correctional Complex

Prisoners at Monroe — which is just 17 miles from the Life Care Center nursing home linked to at least 129 COVID-19 cases — had been bracing for a coronavirus lockdown. Now prisoners are facing the reality of not being able to adequately protect themselves from potential exposure to a deadly virus. A lack of clarity on who can get tested and what will happen to prisoners who get sick has the facility on edge. 

Prisons and jails are uniquely dangerous places to be during a public health crisis. It is impossible for most prisoners to follow basic recommended guidelines around social distancing, hand washing, and disinfecting surfaces. Many incarcerated people live in a shared cell, sleep on bunk beds, and eat, exercise and shower among crowds of other people. The types of hand sanitizer and cleaning products that are strong enough to kill the coronavirus are banned in most detention facilities. Even under regular circumstances, medical care is dismal. 

Criminal justice advocates have been warning for weeks that it is a matter of when, not if, the deadly virus made its way into the country’s jails and prisons. Just this week, detention facilities in Pennsylvania, California and New York, including Rikers Island and Sing Sing, confirmed their first coronavirus cases. 

Millions of lives hang in the balance if corrections officials don’t find a fix — immediately. 

Waiting In Fear Of An Outbreak

“It feels like we’re sitting on the precipice of this incredible disaster,” said Suzanne Cook, who is married to a 62-year-old man with severe health problems who is incarcerated at Monroe.

Already, medical care inside the facility has not been great. It “was an eight-year fight” for Cook and her husband to get him things like his own cell, access to gloves, a mask, and an EpiPen to manage his illness, she said. When Rafay got pneumonia last year, it took him a week to get antibiotics, despite coughing up blood, he said. Just last year, the head doctor at Monroe Correctional Complex was fired after several prisoners died due to inadequate medical care — including a man who never received treatment for a cancerous lump found more than a year before his death.

As the coronavirus outbreak surged in the areas around the prison, the DOC lagged in providing clear answers on the most basic elements of their response to the pandemic. For more than a week, the department would not disclose how many prison employees and how many incarcerated individuals had been tested for coronavirus. When family members of prisoners pressed the question, they were told told only that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the state’s incarcerated population — a fact that carried little significance without knowing how many people had been tested. 

At the end of the week, the DOC announced that it had tested 28 people among the state’s incarcerated population. Six tests came back negative, 22 are still pending. 

Guthrie could not confirm how many prison employees had been tested because “staff are self-reporting as under privacy law so we have no way to know unless they tell us.”

When the Monroe employee tested positive for coronavirus, the DOC suspended visitation through the state. At Monroe, the A and B units — the two sections of the facility with prisoners who were recently exposed to the coronavirus-positive employee — on a precautionary quarantine. The quarantine is expected to end on Sunday, Guthrie said. Until then, they eat meals and receive medicine in their cells, where they are confined for most of the day. 

At first, Rafay said, several prisoners refused to have their temperatures checked or report symptoms. Being sick in prison often means being put into isolation away from their books, letters, legal documents and communication equipment. To some prisoners, the A and B side lockdown seemed more like an effort to “do something” than a meaningful effort at containment: People in the A and B units had come into frequent contact with people from C and D units at the gym, education areas and at work in the days between the infected employee’s shifts and the quarantine. The corrections officers, who are more likely to become exposed to the virus than prisoners, work both sides of the prison.  

Unless individuals are in close contact with the individual who tested positive for COVID-19, they are considered at low risk, Guthrie said, citing Department of Health guidance. 

DOC didn’t announce new screening procedures and temperature checks for its employees until March 15, three days after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. “We started ordering thermometers on 3/11 but several times those orders were cancelled as out of stock,” Guthrie wrote in an email in response to a question about the delay. “We also needed to work out details such as screening protocols, union concerns, etc. and we were still waiting for guidance on leave from our state Human Resources office which continued to be updated through 3/14/20.”

Initially, employees who failed the screening questions or temperature checks were sent home and were told they would need to use their own leave to cover their absence, a policy that would incentivize employees not to disclose symptoms. Earlier this week, DOC agreed to provide paid administrative leave to employees sent home as a result of the screening while the department establishes a secondary screening process for employees to return back to work. Family members of prisoners who are not currently on lockdown worry that if enough corrections officers stay home, the prison will put additional units on lockdown because of a staff shortage. 

According to Guthrie, the state’s prisons put in place an “intensive cleaning protocol focusing on sanitizing high-touch surfaces” and provided hand sanitizer to incarcerated individuals in supervised locations. But the partner of a Monroe prisoner, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said the cleaning supplies were inadequate. The hand sanitizer made available to her partner was not alcohol-based and one of the all purpose cleaners prisoners have access to is supposed to be left on a surface for 10 to 15 minutes before being wiped down — making it useless for cleaning high-use surfaces like telephones. 

“Everyone’s really anxious, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” the prisoner’s partner said. 

Several prisoners and their loved ones described an impossible situation: If they stayed quiet about what they viewed as insufficient safety measures, the virus could spread and kill people. But if they spoke out, they risked losing access to the few things that make incarceration more bearable: time outside, visitors and education and training programs. 

By the exceedingly low levels of transparency set by the nation’s prison system, Washington’s Department of Corrections has taken useful steps towards transparency. The state has an Office of Corrections Ombuds, Joanna Carns, who has been holding daily conference calls, in which she answers questions submitted by citizens. There is also a Family Council of individuals who advocate for their incarcerated family members from the outside. 

But still, family members remain unsettled. “All they have are punitive measures,” said Cook. The DOC’s “mindset is all punishment and security but now they are supposed to be handling health and well-being,” she continued. 

Prison reform advocates and medical experts nationwide are calling for the release of elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners and those who are being held in pretrial detention because they can’t afford bail, as well as a pause on imprisoning more people for low-level offenses

“We will muster every tool of public health, science and medicine to try to keep our patients safe. We will apply every novel treatment and scare test,” Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer for New York’s Correctional Health Services tweeted on Wednesday. “But we cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”

On Thursday, a coalition of Washington state lawmakers, criminal justice reform advocates, doctors, lawyers, academics, and family members of prisoners sent Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair a letter outlining steps to combat coronavirus in Washington’s prisons. The group proposed expanding testing of incarcerated individuals; creating non-punitive quarantines; allowing prisoners to have alcohol-based hand sanitizer, bleach, gloves, and masks; providing free or reduced cost phone and video calls; and releasing the elderly prisoners. 

“If some of these measures are not implemented immediately,” the coalition wrote, “people in your care will die.”

CONVERSATIONS