(Editor’s Note: HuffPost asked the Washington Department of Corrections to respond to a series of questions based on Blackwell’s account of his experience at Monroe Correctional. At various points throughout the article below, HuffPost has provided their answer or response in italics. The author stands by this account of his experience. For context, the state defines an “outbreak” as two or more inmates in the same living area with a confirmed case, or one inmate and one staff with a confirmed case, within a 14-day period. Monroe declared an outbreak on Dec. 29, 2020.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much of everyday life across the globe. One thing it hasn’t changed for me, and incarcerated people like me, is the fact that we are dependent on government systems to care for our health and well-being. When these systems fall apart, by design or by accident, our lives are put at risk. That’s what happened to my unit in Washington state’s Monroe Correctional Complex on Christmas Day, and it has only gotten worse since.
Given that life in prison is never easy — given that many people think it shouldn’t be — it might be surprising to learn the COVID-19 pandemic has made living conditions even worse for prisoners, but it has. After months of asking the Washington Department of Corrections for better access to masks, cleaning products and the ability to social distance, and after months of going on and off lockdowns when incarcerated people on my unit had tested positive, we are now suffering a devastating outbreak of the virus and inhumane conditions on the most severe lockdown yet.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had an extreme fear of sharks — the thought of their powerful bodies made of almost pure muscle have haunted my waking and sleeping hours. I have never been able to pinpoint the source of the fear, but if I had to guess, I think it comes from the thought of being completely helpless — at the mercy of something so powerful it could do whatever it pleases with my life. The fear of sharks I have carried around with me my whole life is no different than how it feels to be sitting in my cell as the twin threats of COVID-19 and incompetent leadership at WDOC rip through the prison like a great white shark in the open ocean. I am unable to protect myself against their desire to consume whatever they want. I am chum in open water, as are hundreds of other prisoners confined within this prison and across the nation.
On Dec. 23, a prisoner on my unit complained of being overheated and was seen shoving blankets in large heating vents mounted along the tall brick walls. Once the guards were alerted to his behavior, they took him to the medical unit where staff discovered he was running a high fever and tested him for COVID-19. He was given two tests, a rapid one that reportedly came back negative, and another that was sent to a lab.
The next day, with the results of the second test still pending, the prisoner was returned to our living unit and mixed with the general population. In doing this, the medical unit failed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines they had adopted: If a prisoner shows or experiences any symptoms, they must be quarantined for 14 days and have two negative tests before returning to the general population. The breach in WDOC’s own protocol put at risk the entire population of prisoners in their care — and the guards who work among us.
On Dec. 25 around noon, guards rushed prisoners into their cells without providing any information to us. For hours, prisoners asked what was happening. We heard nothing — crickets. We were fairly sure we had just received a Christmas gift none of us wanted.
After we spent hours stressed, confused, locked down and not allowed to call our loved ones on Christmas Day, a guard walking the unit finally confirmed the prisoner they had taken out and returned had tested positive for COVID-19. We were back on quarantine, our fourth since March.
On Dec. 26, WDOC administrators compiled a list of prisoners they saw interact with the sick prisoner living among us and rounded them all up, one by one—dragging them off to quarantine in solitary confinement. We would soon find this was too little and far too late. The guards who had interacted with the sick prisoner continued to come to work, and still do. They are the ones passing out our food.
Throughout these events, prisoners did not receive new disposable masks. On Dec. 27, we were still wearing masks that were given to us on Dec. 22. Contrary to WDOC’s claim that prisoners can ask for and receive a mask whenever they want, when we ask for masks, we are told there are none to give out. Yet, the guards continue to pull new masks from a cabinet for themselves. It wasn’t until Dec. 28 (and after countless complaints had been filed) that new masks were finally distributed to prisoners.
(WDOC told HuffPost that “upon receiving the first positive test result, the associated living unit was placed on quarantine status. The adjacent living unit was placed on quarantine status the following day.” Regarding the handling of the initial patient, WDOC told HuffPost that “Health Services staff followed appropriate ... protocols for incarcerated individuals” and PPE was “issued to symptomatic patients and close contacts immediately. Monroe Correctional Complex did not wait for test results before providing PPE.” As to guards who were in contact with that patient, a spokesperson said that “staff followed the appropriate [guidelines] to determine any close contacts of the positive patient after receiving initial test results.” In both cases, the prison referenced WA State DOC COVID-19 Screening, Testing, and Infection Control Guidelines. WDOC said that “facility leadership at Monroe Correctional Complex is not aware of any complaints stating that anyone was denied PPE or did not receive PPE.”)
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, my unit was bustling and loud. Men went to school, communicated with loved ones via phone and visits, and lived out the daily schedules that kept them from losing hope. When the virus struck, things started to change.
The prison removed more men from the unit to solitary confinement for medical isolation. Guards in full PPE gear would come into the living area, swiftly remove prisoners, and we would go on with our day, as if nothing happened. So many prisoners were removed from the unit that they’ve actually been doubled up in solitary cells with two sick prisoners in cells designed for only one person ― one person gets the concrete block cot and the other gets to sleep on the floor next to the toilet. (WDOC told HuffPost that “these are cells designed to hold two individuals.”)
On Dec. 30, medical finally conducted a round of COVID-19 tests for our living unit — after almost a dozen asymptomatic prisoners had been taken to medical isolation. On Dec. 31, another prisoner was removed with severe symptoms. Not long after, our unit was placed on a “full lockdown.” Prisoners were told no one could come out of their cells for any reason, as WDOC had identified quite a few more positive cases within the unit. They did not provide us with our own results at the time. (WDOC told HuffPost that “test results were not withheld from incarcerated individuals. Results can take approximately 24 to 72 hours to be received from the lab.”)
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, my unit was bustling and loud. Men went to school, communicated with loved ones via phone and visits, and lived out the daily schedules that kept them from losing hope. When the virus struck, things started to change. At first it was the small things: We had to wear masks and overclean our cells. Then visits were called off. Then WDOC started limiting how many prisoners could be out of their cell at one time to use phones, showers and recreational areas like the yard or the gym. Now on “quarantine lockdown,” we are kept in our cells for approximately 23 hours a day.
Hours before the new year struck, guards walked around with a list in hand, stopping at doors and telling prisoners they tested positive for the virus. Prisoners were instructed to grab a couple of things and prepare to be taken to medical quarantine. Plucked off one at a time — many with no symptoms at all — by guards who arrived at their cells in full PPE gear, like astronauts in space suits, prisoners felt they were living in a real-life “Hunger Games” and waiting in suspense for their ticket to be pulled from the glass bowl.
As prisoners waited to see if they were going to be chosen to be hauled off to solitary confinement, many began yelling, banging on surfaces, and blasting music, looking for any avenue to vent mounting stress, frustration and probably fear — though we don’t talk about fear in an environment submerged in levels of toxic masculinity unmatched by any other.
As I waited, I paced back and forth in my 6-by-10-foot concrete box and stressed about what was happening. How many of my friends were infected? Was I? And why had it taken hours for WDOC to tell us what was going on? I couldn’t think straight or relax. I became more and more anxious as time passed.
At one point, I felt as if I might explode. I felt like I barely had control of my body ― it just kept moving as I tried to form a structured thought about what to do. I know many people think prisoners deserve to feel like this, but we are people, too, and when it comes to COVID-19, we belong to one of the most vulnerable populations in this country.
The purging of our unit took hours to execute. It ended with nearly one-third of prisoners (about 40) removed from our unit. The noise made by some of us who were left in our cells was deafening and lasted late into the night. Maybe some men were “celebrating” because it was New Year’s, but it’s more likely they were celebrating the fact they were not selected to be taken to solitary confinement for medical isolation.
Late that night, after the noise died down and many prisoners had burned themselves out like children who fall asleep after throwing a hissy fit, my mind turned to questioning how WDOC could have let this happen. Almost every prison in Washington state has had an extremely large outbreak, yet WDOC continues to mismanage the safety of prisoners and ground-level guards. What we’ve been forced to experience was and is avoidable. Gov. Jay Inslee has complained that stories coming from prisoners are not to be trusted, but we’re the ones living through this nightmare.
The next morning, as prisoners began to wake up, I could hear guys calling to their friends, wondering who still remained. Some received a response. Others did not. It’s hard to know your friends lay sick and at the mercy of the very people who brought them there. And the really scary part is, I know this isn’t the end — there are most certainly very dark times ahead.
Almost every prison in Washington state has had an extremely large outbreak — yet WDOC continues to drop the ball and mismanage the safety of prisoners and ground-level guards. What we’ve been forced to experience was and is avoidable.
Around 10 days into January, 30 or so people were taken from their cells and hauled off to isolation. Now, as I write this, 13 people out of 170 men remain in my living unit. It’s a cold, eerie feeling ― like living in a ghost town. Movement is strictly restricted: We are not able to shower, get potable drinking water, make phone calls, or go outside, except when guards give us a 30- to 50-minute reprieve. As each day passes, the remaining prisoners and I continuously wonder if we too will be removed and placed with our comrades in solitary confinement.
In a press conference that took place after I published a piece in The Washington Post about the need to prioritize incarcerated individuals in the vaccine rollout, Gov. Inslee said, “The department has a very comprehensive plan on how to reduce the risk of COVID ... in a correctional facility. ... I would encourage those members of the press who are interested in this subject to sit down with the department and listen to their plans on how they are going about reducing this risk. Sometimes there are stories that are reported in our great media that just are not accurate. Sometimes rumors get started by individuals who are incarcerated that are frankly false. So it is important to sit down with the WDOC and listen to the protocols they have embraced.”
What I am seeing, what I am living through, what I am writing about is not a rumor ― it’s what’s happening on the ground. It is a breakdown of policy with potentially deadly consequences that people, including the governor, need to know about.
Here are some facts I know: People are dying in prisons across Washington state. Thousands of prisoners are or have been infected with the virus. Guards have refused to practice social distancing or wear masks, regardless of the fact they have been instructed to do so time and time again. Even worse, WDOC leadership doesn’t hold them accountable for it. Prisoners are not being given the proper protective gear to keep themselves safe. There are extreme delays in critical information being distributed to prisoners and their loved ones, and even when we receive it, we worry we can’t trust it.
As an individual living within a prison, I know firsthand that WDOC is far from where it needs to be to keep prisoners safe. If the department continues to do things the way it has, I can guarantee there are many more casualties on the horizon. Many prisoners were already bracing for a difficult Christmas in light of being cut off from visiting with our loved ones since March and having no set date upon which these visits can resume. But none of us were expecting what has continued to be thrust upon us. If prisoners have received anything this Christmas, it’s the gift that just keeps on giving ― WDOC’s shortcomings that put both prisoners and staff at risk.
Christopher Blackwell is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, and is working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Jewish Currents, INSIDER, and many other publications. He is serving a 45-year sentence. Follow Christopher on Twitter.