OLYMPIA, WA — The Washington State Supreme Court has rejected a petition seeking the release of thousands of inmates considered most at-risk for complications from COVID-19.
The ruling, signed by Chief Justice Debra Stephens Thursday afternoon, said the group representing the inmates failed to show the state’s current measures “constitute deliberate indifference to the COVID-19 risk at the Department of Corrections facilities.”
The court’s decision came just a few hours after oral arguments concluded in a first-of-its-kind remote hearing, held at the Temple of Justice using the video conferencing app Zoom.
Gov. Jay Inslee released a statement in favor of the decision Thursday evening.
“We’re grateful for the Court’s careful review of this serious matter,” Inslee said. “The DOC will continue to take all possible measures to care for the health and safety of incarcerated persons.”
The petition, filed last month on behalf of five inmates, urged the court to order the release of all inmates over 50, those with medical concerns, and people within 18 months of their release date.
Nick Straley, an attorney for the inmates, argued Thursday that Washington is violating the state constitution’s cruel punishment clause by failing to protect inmates from “a substantial risk of serious harm.”
“COVID-19 is so dangerous and so contagious that it’s actually illegal for us to be in the same room this morning,” Straley said. “But, nonetheless, my clients sleep in the same room with two or three or 25 other people. And when they wake up, they are crammed into day rooms, crammed into mess halls.”
Earlier this month, the court granted an emergency motion, ordering the state to take steps to protect prisoners after several illnesses were confirmed among inmates and staff at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
According to the state Department of Corrections, at least 24 employees and 13 inmates have tested positive for the new coronavirus. Approximately 300 inmates have been tested, 104 are in isolation, and more than 1,000 are in quarantine, officials said. The state’s prison population, before the virus, was slightly below 18,000.
Straley argued a lack of universal testing within prisons has left the state unable to know the real impact of COVID-19, referencing mass testing in Ohio that recently found 73 percent of inmates had the disease.
Since the court’s ruling, Inslee and the Department of Corrections identified approximately 1,100 inmates for early release, through a mixture of commutations, furloughs and community monitoring.
Attorneys for the inmates say that number is insufficient to adequately drop the prison population to the point where social distancing is possible, or to protect inmates with higher risks for the disease.
“Overcrowding is always unpleasant, sometimes it’s unconstitutional, and in this case, it can be deadly,” Straley said. “We’re asking for an extraordinary remedy to fit an extraordinary moment.”
Straley cited two experts who filed briefs in support of the petition, including former corrections secretary Dan Pacholke, who said the state fell short of the action needed to address the crisis.
“The state hasn’t presented any evidence that their plan will meet constitutional standards,” Straley said. “[They] haven’t demonstrated that social distancing in every prison in Washington. In fact, all the evidence before the court suggests it’s not.”
The Office of the Corrections Ombuds visited the Monroe Correctional Complex on April 10 and found the facility unable to impose social distancing, noting high stress among employees and prisoners and staffing shortages related to COVID-19.
Assistant Attorney General John Samson defended the state’s plan, pointing to early releases already in-progress and mentioning several areas of concern the officials must consider.
“They have made difficult decisions on how best to protect the incarcerated population, how best to protect public safety, how best to avoid future harm to victims, and how best to protect those individuals who are released when they go to the community,” Samson said. “It’s my understanding that, as of this coming weekend, the prison population will actually drop down below 16,000.”
Samson said the state believes the drop in the inmate population is enough to meet the needs of the crisis, coupled with earlier measures to stop incarcerating people for minor offenses.
Regarding the Ombuds findings, which also included photos of inmates congregating and sleeping in close proximity, Samson noted the report was submitted nearly two weeks ago before the state took further steps.
“I was told superintendent of Monroe [Correctional] Complex that minimum security unit, this coming weekend, will be able to guarantee six-foot social distancing, assuming inmates comply with that.”
Samson said the state could identify more inmates for early release, should it be determined necessary to do so.
Regarding testing, Samson said the department could not test all inmates, due to shortage of available kits in Washington and across the nation.
Washington Corrections Center for Women
One of the inmates included in the petition is Shyanne Colvin, 21, who is seven months pregnant and incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. According to the petition, Colvin has not been able to see a doctor, despite her pregnancy, and having suffered a seizure late last year.
Colvin told the attorneys she shares a cell with two other women, and one sleeps on the ground.
“In their pod, there are 23 total cells and most have three [women] per cell,” the attorneys wrote. “Mrs. Colvin is exposed to a crowd of about 50 women six times a day.”
According to Colvin, inmates who have been quarantined after showing potential symptoms are located sometimes just one or two cells down. Samson said the state was planning releases for more than a dozen pregnant inmates, including Colvin.
Her concerns are shared by Ray Rhodes, whose wife Cynthia Miller, 60, is incarcerated at the same facility. Miller is serving a lengthy sentence for a first-degree assault conviction and does not meet the state’s current requirements for early release. Rhodes worries catching the virus would equal a death sentence for his wife, who has several serious health concerns and an autoimmune disorder.
Rhodes said, while inmates at the prison have received some masks, they often go unworn, and social distancing efforts continue to be lax.
“DOC tells the outside world [masks] are required, but the truth of the matter is they don’t exercise that on the inside,” Rhodes told Patch. “What my wife is telling me that’s happening in there is nobody’s following it, and nobody is being forced to comply with what we’re dealing with on the outside. When you don’t have that kind of direction on the inside, people are going to catch this virus.”
Rhodes also questioned the state’s reasoning for releasing only those near the end of their sentences, rather than prioritizing people based on their health risk.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why they would not include people who meet all the criteria to be released on medical furlough, or an emergency medical release, or an emergency medical placement,” Rhodes said. “Instead, they went to people who were already due to get out.”
State legislators, crime victims protest inmate releases
A group of Republican state legislators held a news conference outside the Temple of Justice, where the remote hearing was held, joined by family members of Julie Fenton, a Sedro-Wooley woman killed during a shooting spree in 2008. Fenton’s daughter, Tonya, recently posted an emotional video on social media, expressing concern that her mother’s killer, Isaac Zamora, could be released.
Fenton underlined her concerns Thursday.
“My mom was brutally murdered by Zamora, my dad [was] shot twice, along with five other victims that day that were killed and many wounded,” Fenton said. “This guy does not deserve to be let loose. If gets loose, he will do what he did to us to others.”
Discretionary releases and victim notification
Justices asked the inmates’ attorney whether the state should release all inmates in the categories listed in the petition, or whether there were cases where someone should continue to be held. Straley said the department could use its discretion to consider potential safety concerns among some inmates, and choose to decline certain releases based on those concerns.
When questioned about the constitutional rights of victims, Straley said victim notification and support should remain a high priority for the state.
“Victim notification and supporting survivors of crime is absolutely essential,” Straley said. “This is a situation, though, where the state can walk and chew gum simultaneously.”
Straley said it was a “false dichotomy” to suggest that the state could not release inmates while also supporting victims of crime.
“We can do both,” Straley said. “In fact, they have the obligation to do both.
According to Straley, one of the declarations included in the petition identifies about 7,800 people within 18 months of release, including 3,400 inmates with no victim notification requirements as part of their sentence.
“All of those people can be released without this issue even coming up as something to be concerned about.”
Watch the full hearing below:
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