BY Jerry Cornfield
OLYMPIA — Hundreds of inmates will be released from state prisons “in a matter of days” as officials work to comply with a Supreme Court order to better protect prisoners from a COVID-19 outbreak inside Washington correctional facilities.
A plan submitted to the state’s highest court Monday pledges to free up to 950 people convicted of non-violent and drug- or alcohol-related offenses, some of whom are within days of getting out anyway and others who have several months left to serve.
It does not set a timetable for a start or finish but vows that Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of Corrections Steve Sinclair intend to implement the plan expeditiously.
Inslee, during a Monday news conference, said the first group of inmates will be released “in a matter of a few days.”
“We are moving as quickly as possible to be in compliance,” Inslee said.
Attorneys for inmates who incited the court action blasted the 43-page plan and said in a statement that it shows the state “is moving too slowly and too timidly to respond to this global pandemic.”
“Only on the very last page of its report does the State discuss what all objective public health officials, the public, and the Petitioners have requested for weeks — the release of people from DOC custody to allow for appropriate social distancing,” said attorney Nick Straley, assistant deputy director of advocacy at Columbia Legal Services.
Under the state’s plan, non-violent offenders with less than eight months to serve will be eyed for early release. Some will get out via furlough or a commuted sentence. Some will wind up in a modified re-entry program or subject to electronic home monitoring.
The plan identifies five target groups: those due for release within 75 days; those considered vulnerable to the virus with two to six months to serve; those due for release in six to eight months who have an approved release plan; those imprisoned for lower-level supervision violations; and those in the final six months of their sentence who can be furloughed by Sinclair.
One thing not mentioned in the plan: crime victims and witnesses enrolled in the victim notification program will not be told ahead of time who will be getting out of prison early or moved to partial confinement.
Inslee said there is “simply not time” to do so given the court’s demand for immediate action.
The submission from state officials came after an April 8 protest by inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex, where seven incarcerated people in the same minimum security unit have tested positive for the potentially deadly coronavirus.
The state Supreme Court, acting on an emergency request from inmates, directed the state to “take all necessary steps” to protect the health and safety of prisoners from the threat presented by the COVID-19 outbreak.
All told, eight Washington prisoners had tested positive as of Monday, including those in Monroe. At least 14 prison employees statewide have contracted the virus, including five in Monroe.
Justices required Inslee and Sinclair to submit their plan by noon Monday and provide an update on Friday. Oral arguments on the inmates’ original petition, filed last month, are scheduled to be heard April 23.
That petition seeks a larger-scale release of individuals currently incarcerated in the state prison, a point that their attorneys reiterated Monday.
“This report only strengthens the need for the Court to take immediate action to force the State to do what it is apparently unwilling to do on its own — dramatically reduce the number of people in Washington’s prisons as an essential step in fighting COVID-19,” Straley said.
The state’s submission Monday contained a 43-page narrative, most of it detailing policies and practices carried out by the Department of Corrections in the past two months. It also recapped the protest.
It notes at the outset that the eight positive cases represent 0.039% of the state’s prison population of approximately 18,000. In comparison, about 0.14% of the state’s total population has tested positive.
While Inslee and Sinclair have said thinning the prison population through early release has been under discussion, they both have emphasized that much effort was made to keep the virus out before the first confirmed case April 5.
Corrections staff “had been preparing for weeks to minimize the chances of COVID-19 entering its facilities and having a plan to manage the spread” if it entered, reads the plan authored by state attorneys.
The department eliminated visitations to prevent the potential of the virus being introduced from an outside source. Inmates are screened upon arrival at facilities and are getting their temperatures taken regularly. In recent days — since the demonstration inside Monroe — inmates and staff have been given masks and staff are required to wear theirs.
Screening and testing have been stepped up, and extensive efforts have been made to isolate ill inmates and quarantine prisoners potentially exposed to those diagnosed with COVID-19. Inmates are allowed out of their cells in smaller numbers to enhance social distancing. Their movements have been altered for the same reason, the report says.
Fewer people are getting sent back to prison for parole violations, and transfers of inmates from one site to another have been curbed.
“There’s a lot of work going on besides the early-release protocol,” Inslee said Monday.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.