‘Help We Don’t Wanna Die’: Inside The First Prison To Protest Lack Of COVID-19 Protection

The demonstration at a Washington state complex was the inevitable response to the state’s failure to keep its inmates safe from coronavirus.

People with loved ones imprisoned at the Monroe Correctional Complex began receiving frantic messages Wednesday night. The state prison in Washington had announced its first confirmed case of coronavirus among the incarcerated population earlier that week, and inmates were learning about new cases almost every day.

“Every unit is running out screaming help we don’t wanna die,” one inmate wrote in a message using JPay, an email-like service used in prisons.

“THEY″RE GOING CRAZY IN HERE,” another inmate wrote, adding that officers were armed with grenades and mace. “ITS BAD.”

“Baby, I don’t want to make you worry but things just went from bad to worse,” a third inmate reported. “We’ve been blessed to not have any positive cases from our tier and we’ve been safe, but now they want to move us from here to a tier where there have been multiple confirmed cases removed in the last week, he continued. “This is bullshit and things may get bad. Please pray. Love you.”

The family members of prisoners turned on their TVs to find headlines about a “riot” at Monroe — the first known jail or prison uprising in the country since COVID-19 entered the prison system. More than 100 prisoners, according to Washington’s Department of Corrections, participated in a “demonstration in the recreation yard.” When they refused to come back inside, they were hit with pepper spray and sting balls, which release light, noise and rubber pellets, the state DOC said. Aerial footage from local newscasters showed inmates kneeling on the ground outside with their hands cuffed behind their back. One inmate said he was handcuffed for six hours. No one was injured, the corrections department said.

An inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex said he was handcuffed for six hours after a protest broke out over the prison's response to the spread of coronavirus.
An inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex said he was handcuffed for six hours after a protest broke out over the prison's response to the spread of coronavirus.
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Detention facilities are among the most dangerous places to live during the COVID-19 public health crisis because it is impossible for most inmates to follow recommended guidelines on social distancing, handwashing and maintaining sanitized surfaces. Since the start of the global pandemic, prisoners have rioted in Italy, Iran, Thailand and Colombia because of fears related to the coronavirus.

Some form of protest or show of resistance was inevitable at Monroe. Inmates and their family members told HuffPost last month they were anxious about the spread of coronavirus through the facility after an employee tested positive. Since then, the response from prison officials has been mostly punitive. At least 12 inmates and staffers at Monroe have tested positive for COVID-19, although the actual number is likely higher due to a lack of testing and a policy that staff self-report their diagnosis. Prisoners have no way to prevent contracting the highly contagious, potentially fatal disease, and they don’t trust staff members to keep them safe, HuffPost found, based on interviews and JPay messages from more than 20 people incarcerated at Monroe, their loved ones and their lawyers. Many of the inmates requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

“We’re people and we have fears and we have anxieties and we’re helpless to do anything for our family and a lot of the time for ourselves,” said Raymond Williams, a man incarcerated at Monroe. “I think that recipe there, in and of itself, breeds a lot of fear and anxiety.”

After Monroe’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus a month ago, multiple units were placed on quarantine, which prisoners said was similar to lockdown. Those who tested positive or showed symptoms of the virus were put in solitary confinement. Visitation and educational programs were canceled to prevent outside germs from entering the facility, but corrections officers continued to come to work without wearing masks. Despite warnings from public health experts that depopulating prisons is the only way to limit an outbreak, Washington state has lagged in releasing even nonviolent offenders or people nearing the end of their sentences.

“I’m guessing that unless you’ve been incarcerated amidst a global pandemic, you probably don’t know what it’s like when the fear of death overrides that of the consequences of protest,” according to an account written by a Monroe inmate who uses the name Michael Murphy.

The first COVID-19 case at Monroe was confirmed on March 12, when a prison staffer tested positive for the disease. That night, about 50 prisoners were crowded in a room together for movie night to watch “Harriet,” unaware that they had potentially been exposed to the coronavirus. Inmates got the news about 2 a.m. the next day from a memo dropped into their cells.

Several units were placed in a “precautionary quarantine,” allowed out of their cells for only 30 minutes a day — enough time to shower or use the phone. The state Department of Corrections claimed to have implemented “an intensive cleaning protocol” in response to COVID-19, but several of the cleaning solutions available to inmates must be left on a surface for at least 10 minutes before being wiped down, making it ineffective for high-use surfaces like telephones. Corrections officers continued to move between units under quarantine and units that were supposedly safe from exposure.

During quarantine, prisoners ate meals out of cardboard trays delivered to their cells instead of in the chow hall. It was an effort to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure — but the corrections officers who delivered the meals rarely wore masks or gloves, and sometimes the stack of trays would be piled so high they would use their face to balance the stack. “We pick up on stuff like that in here, and it builds animosity and tension and resentment,” Williams said.

The DOC’s response felt performative and pointless, seven people incarcerated at Monroe said in interviews. “This is all just comic theater,” another inmate said in an interview. “It’s useless to spray bleach everywhere and then spray respiratory droplets on top of it,” he said, regarding the corrections officers’ failure to wear masks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation earlier this month that people wear cloth masks when they are around others in order to prevent asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus. DOC announced on April 3 it would issue expired N95 masks to staff for use on a “voluntary” basis. At least two inmates filed an emergency grievance requesting that corrections officers be required to wear masks. With visitation and educational programs suspended, it was apparent to the inmates that staffers were the only people who could bring the virus into Monroe. One staffer had already tested positive, and the inmates knew it was only a matter of time until one of them got sick.

“Unless you’ve been incarcerated amidst a global pandemic, you probably don’t know what it’s like when the fear of death overrides that of the consequences of protest.”

- Michael Murphy

Their fears were confirmed on April 5. An inmate in the minimum security unit tested positive after showing symptoms. He was placed in isolation, and his housing unit was placed on quarantine.

“We just got notice that covid 19 is here at the camp I’m in I’m scared mom I dont deserve a life sentence,” a minimum security prisoner wrote in a JPay message the next day.

The Department of Corrections announced last week that two more inmates were confirmed to have COVID-19. One is 28, the other is 68. The department “will no longer send individual news releases on each new incarcerated individual case,” the DOC wrote in a news release. Prison staff “are being strongly encouraged” to wear masks,” the department said.

That night, corrections officers tried to move some minimum-security inmates to the part of the unit where people have tested positive for COVID-19. The inmates, who believed the area had not been sufficiently disinfected, refused. Several told their loved ones that corrections officers tried bribing them into cooperating by bringing them McDonald’s, according to JPay messages reviewed by HuffPost. “These guys got the nerve to bring us McDonald’s at 10:30 at night and trying to make us move to a tier where everybody got the virus. This shit is sick af fr,” one man wrote in a JPay message.

By that point, inmates had been told of five COVID-19 cases among Monroe’s incarcerated population, but because of a lack of testing, they assumed the actual number was much higher. They had all been watching the news — they knew what the CDC was recommending, and they knew it wasn’t happening in the prison.

So on Wednesday night, they protested. A prison employee told Seattle’s KING-TV that inmates “threatened to take hostages and to destroy property.” Washington’s Department of Corrections did not respond to a list of questions, including whether the hostage threats took place.

“We’re people and we have fears and we have anxieties and we’re helpless to do anything for our family and a lot of the time for ourselves.”

- Raymond Williams

People incarcerated at Monroe don’t trust the prison staff to protect them. Even before the coronavirus crisis, medical care at the prison was poor. The head doctor at Monroe was fired last year after several prisoners died because of inadequate medical attention — including a man who never received treatment for a cancerous lump found more than a year before his death.

Prisoners told HuffPost that people try to suppress coughs and avoid reporting symptoms of COVID-19 because they are afraid of getting sent into solitary confinement. “Everybody who was sick and is sick refuses to report it because they don’t want to go to the hole,” Ruth Utnage, who is incarcerated at Monroe, said in an interview.

Those sent to isolation described freezing cold cells and water that comes out of the sink brown. When one inmate complained about the water, he was told “to just keep running the water, this place hasn’t been open in awhile.”

“It’s straightforward neglect,” said the inmate, who requested anonymity.

People sent into isolation haven’t been able to bring books, JPay-connected tablets or use the phone. Check-ins from staff have been infrequent, and prisoners have had no way to ask for help. Although DOC guidance requires that prisoners in isolation have access to a shower at least weekly, some say they went longer without a chance to bathe.

Because prisoners who show symptoms are sent to isolation before actually testing positive, they worried that if they didn’t have the virus already, they would get it from the corrections officers who interacted with inmates confirmed to have COVID-19. “They’re not changing their gloves, they’re not wearing masks,” the same prisoner said. “We don’t know what to do besides call our people and start going over their heads, and we shouldn’t be doing that.” (DOC staffers are supposed to wear a mask, eye protection, a gown and gloves when in contact with prisoners in isolation.)

“Everybody who was sick and is sick refuses to report it because they don’t want to go to the hole.”

- Ruth Utnage

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Secretary of Corrections Stephen Sinclair spoke at a press conference the day after the protest, they didn’t acknowledge any of the Monroe prisoners’ fears about getting the coronavirus and dying in prison. Instead, they accused the inmates of refusing to cooperate with staffers’ efforts to protect them. Sinclair was “extremely disappointed” with the inmates who “broke the quarantine” by going into the yard to protest, he said.

Asked by a reporter about inmates saying they were scared to be moved to an area where COVID-19-positive inmates had recently lived, Sinclair said, “Sometimes if people aren’t paying attention, are not listening to what we’re trying to do for them, they perceive things that aren’t completely true.”

In order to keep the most vulnerable prisoners safe, Inslee followed up, “some of the other inmates might have to give up their televisions,” he said, an apparent reference to the solitary confinement units where prisoners went without clean drinking water and access to a shower.

Neither Inslee nor Sinclair mentioned anything about corrections officers wearing masks until a reporter brought it up. Sinclair responded that he is going to require staff to wear masks and would try to get enough for prisoners as well. “Man, now I need to get one of those masks myself,” he said.

Utnage has started making masks for other prisoners, and she’s happy to do it, she said in a JPay message. “It gives us a sense of helping in some way, distributing some autonomy back to us, makes us feel less powerless and to be frank, we get to work with staff in a way that is humanizing.”

Asked why Inslee had not yet released people who could be safely let out, the governor said he had been busy coordinating the COVID-19 response for the rest of the state’s population.

“I have 7 million other people who I care about,” Inslee said. “We approach these things as they become time critical and this is time critical.” On Monday, two days after prisoners’ family members marched in front of the Governor’s Mansion, the state announced plans to release 600 to 950 nonviolent offenders whose release dates are within the next six to eight months.

The people incarcerated at Monroe and their loved ones watched last week’s news conference with disgust. “You could tell a lot of people were watching here at the same time,” one inmate said. “There was a lot of people like, ‘You’re so full of shit.’”

“My blood is boiling,” said Nana Chuyeshkova, whose fiancé is imprisoned at Monroe. The inmates in the minimum security unit are about to get released, she said. “They don’t want to start trouble. They’re coming home soon.”

“It makes you cry,” Chuyeshkova said, referring to the dispatches the inmates send on JPay, describing their fear of getting sick and never coming home. “Just reading them and how they’re begging for somebody to hear their voice.”

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