How the department failed the people under their care.
“If we were dogs or cats, people would have gone to jail, and all these facilities would've been ordered to close, with the way they treat us, and handle their covid response.” This is a statement made by an incarcerated individual at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, in Washington State. These aren’t just "words from a prisoner", they are a plea for humanity, a plea for dignity, and the words of a person that feels powerless and dehumanized. When human beings are treated less humanely than pets, that should mean change is overdue and there is something seriously wrong with our society. Washington DOC has taken the most unreasonable, ineffective, and cruel approach to its COVID-19 response. Repeatedly, the approach taken by WA DOC has proven to be a failure...DOC's so-called approach and strategy to counter COVID has been inconsistent and punitive. As a result of this policy, prisoners end up in segregation or are subject to segregation-like conditions in what should simply be medical isolation. Prisoners have been denied basic human needs, such as showers, telephone calls to family and friends, fresh air, or even clean clothes and these are issues that continue to be manifested within WA DOC facilities up to the present time. Prisoners have been forced to stay in these conditions for 21 days or more. Although time in isolation has been decreased by CDC, WA DOC has failed to implement these changes and instead has continued to force prisoners who test positive to endure a 10-to-21-day isolation period. Those whose result comes back inconclusive are forced to stay in isolation for 21days or more in mostly inhumane and disgusting conditions. In distinction to this, staff are not subject to COVID-19 isolation rules and restrictions. When a staff member tests positive, they are gone for only five days. It can clearly be seen that the rules around a positive test are quite different between staff and prisoners. The DOC has used COVID as an excuse to assert more power and impose conditions and restrictions that would be deemed unconstitutional if put into effect before the Pandemic. Some examples include cancelling access to law libraries, closing religious services for a long period of time, denying recreational activity and the ability to exercise, and indefinitely cancelling visitation by family and friends. The restrictions have been imposed even on those that have not tested positive. The DOC has taken advantage of COVID-19 in a way that is becoming increasingly inhumane and cruel while ignoring the mental health of the people under their care. Rather than implementing an effective targeted approach in their COVID-19 response, they have chosen to implement an oppressive, group punishment-like approach. DOC's ineffective and vindictive approach has triggered anger and frustration, even leading to protests, disturbances, the use of force against prisoners, retaliations, and just oher forms of physical assault against prisoners. Once such example was at Monroe Corrections Center in the Minimum-Security Unit (MSU). In this instance, incarcerated individuals began a peaceful protest, but it developed into what was described as a disturbance, leading to a shutdown of the units and damages to the facility after the staff escalated the situation and deployed paper spray. The incident was investigated by Dominica Campbell and the Office of the Corrections Ombuds. Report was released on January 22, 2021. Another notable disturbance happened at Monroe Corrections Center-Washington State Reformatory Unit (WSRU). Prisoners protested the conditions of confinement, the lack of programing, and the lack of mental health care. The situation escalated to the point where fires were set in the unit. After OCO interviewed prisoners in both situations, it became clear from the report that the concerns leading to the disturbances were due to DOC's response to COVID-19 and the conditions that had been established because of that response. Another COVID-19 policy-related incident happened at Reynolds Work Release, where a group of people of color were retaliated against by DOC for involvement in a protest that was organized outside the work release facility by members of the public protesting the conditions of confinement within DOC facilities in response to the Pandemic. Rather than addressing and listening to the public outcry, DOC decided to retaliate against and punish the people under their care. Some of the prisoners had COVID-19 and DOC decided to punish them by sending them back to prison even though they had been placed in work release. It should be noted that Angee Schrader, who was the Assistant Ombuds for gender equity and reentry with the Office of Corrections investigated the incident and wrote a final report entitled “Reynolds Retaliation Final Report” dated November 19, 2020. Angee Schrader authored two other reports, one of which addressed other aggressive tactics deployed by DOC during the COVID-19 pandemic. DOC systematically infracted prisoners who refused to work in a COVID-19 environment. The Office of Corrections Ombuds reported receiving infractions reports by prisoners and their families from different facilities. These facilities included Washington State Penitentiary (WSP), Airway Height Corrections Center (AHCC), and Monroe Corrections Center (MCC). The facilities in question had been among the most affected facilities in the state and with high casualty rates. However, rather than addressing prisoner concerns, the DOC instead decided to use the retaliatory tool of infractions (See the 557 COVID-19 Infraction report, with DOC response, authored by Angee Schrader and published on April 28, 2021). While DOC was busy writing up prisoners with infractions, some prisoners were struggling with the question of whether life is worth living, resulting in cases of prisoners taking their own lives as well.
OCO found DOC to have mishandled the prisoners’ concerns. As a result of that, OCO released a report entitled “Suicide Deaths in Washington Department of Corrections” by Patricia H. David, the director of Patient Safety and Performance. The content of that report echoed everyone’s concern regarding DOC's handling of the mental health of prisoners. Washington DOC is known to be one of worst departments in the nation when it comes to handling and addressing mental illness or mental health in general. In 2021, OCO rebuked DOC’s lack of urgency in addressing the department's mental health protocol, OCO found DOC to have failed to adhere to the recommendations that they had issued. This concern was echoed by Elisabeth Kingsburry JD. OCO Policy Director in a report published in June 2021 entitled “OCO Systemic Report on Mental Health”. Just in case anyone thought that was it, it unfortunately isn't. In fact, on December 5, 2020 and December 8, 2020, two prisoners were assaulted by corrections staff at Stafford Creek Corrections center. One of the prisoners suffered injuries to his head after being hit by staff for the simple reason of trying to go to use the restroom rather than allowing staff to arbitrarily deny him that basic right. The other incident occurred when a prisoner who was in a video visit was arbitrarily told to end his visit early, even though he still had 18 minutes left to connect with his family. Both prisoners were pepper sprayed and beaten by staff due to conditions that had been created by the DOC’s poor response to the Pandemic. The situation led to an investigation conducted by Angee Schrader with the OCO that was dated Febuary 11, 2021 (Use of Force Investigation at SCCC). Other inquiries found that the staff lied during the investigation and discovered that the force used was indeed excessive. While those are situations that made it into a report, many such situations and conditions are never written about or published, and the same situations and conditions continue to be present within DOC facilities. As a result, many incarcerated individuals are fed up with the undue penalties and inhumane conditions imposed by DOC. In response to the most recent examples of DOC lack of competence, prisoners at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, specifically H2-A, participated in a food strike for more than five days, protesting the COVID-19 restrictions, lack of nutritious meals, and lack of reasonable medical and mental health care during COVID. DOC has failed to address these concerns and has ignored the impact of their senseless conditions on prisoners’ mental health. Instead, they have focused on how to use the situation to secure more funding from the government, as the taxpayers pick up the bill. It is not enough that the taxpayers are paying for this, they are also being cheated and overcharged as the Department charges the taxpayers two to three times the amount of what they claim to need. Regardless of the demeaning status of being a prisoner, it is not OK to be dehumanized and be treated worse than animals. It is therefore on the community and society at large to demand a stop to such an inhumane treatment of human beings. By: JoJo Deogracias Ejonga. Aka. Jonathan Deogracias Ejonga-Lihau Twitter@JoJoEjongaLihau