After Tensions Erupt Over Coronavirus Fears, Inslee Says He's Considering Early Release for Some Nonviolent Offenders


Gov. Jay Inslee and Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair on Thursday scolded inmates involved in a major disturbance at Monroe Correctional Complex prompted by coronavirus fears, but the governor said he may propose a limited number of early releases of nonviolent offenders from prison.

Inslee gave no details of the early release plan, saying those will come in a few days.

"Generally, we're looking at nonviolent offenders who are nearing their appropriate release date, who because of age or health conditions have a higher risk of potentially contracting the disease and having a fatal result," he said at a news conference.

The vague pledge is unlikely to appease advocates for inmates, who stepped up a legal fight Thursday seeking to force the state to drastically thin out prison populations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Columbia Legal Services sued the state late last month on behalf of five inmates, asking the state Supreme Court to compel release of everyone in DOC custody who is 50 or older; have serious health problems; or are scheduled for release in the next 18 months. Advocates have said few exceptions should be made to such categorical releases.

The court has scheduled oral arguments in the case for April 23, but Thursday Columbia Legal Services filed a new emergency request, asking the court to take immediate action to protect inmates, including appointing a "special master" to help oversee DOC's actions. The court has ordered the state to respond by Friday.

"DOC's response to the COVID-19 crisis has proven dangerously ineffective, and as a result, people are falling ill," the attorneys for the inmates argued in their motion.

At the news conference Thursday, Sinclair defended the DOC's efforts, saying the agency has taken actions from early on in the outbreak, suspending visits and isolating anyone showing symptoms. He said the department is about to start requiring officers to wear masks, and will seek to get them for inmates, too.

"So in our perfect world we'll have everyone with some level of face covering, just like I see every day when I go to the grocery store," he said.

Sinclair and Inslee both expressed disappointment in the disturbance by Monroe inmates, saying they were reacting to efforts to move people around to less-desirable living areas to protect more vulnerable prisoners.

"If we're going to provide safety for some of the more vulnerable people in the population -- people over 65, the people that have underlying health concerns -- some of the other inmates might have to give up their television for a certain period of time," Inslee said.

The disturbance at the Monroe prison erupted Wednesday night, the same day inmates at the prison's minimum-security B unit were told six prisoners there had tested positive for the virus. On Tuesday night, prison officials offered McDonald's burgers to convince some younger inmates to move to open, dorm-style rooms, allowing older inmates to move to two-person cells. The men refused to move.

One inmate in the unit said he threw his burger on the ground, viewing it as an insult. "I told them I am not gonna let them play God with my life," he said in a phone interview with The Seattle Times.

Tensions boiled over late Wednesday, with men in other nearby minimum-security units protesting conditions they contend are failing to keep them safe. They trashed living spaces, set off fire extinguishers and some threatened to take guards hostage, according to the DOC and police agencies.

Some inmates complied with orders to stand down, DOC officials said, but others resisted, and officers deployed pepper spray and sting balls, which release light, noise and rubber pellets.

In messages to relatives or significant others, inmates outlined frustrations over plans to move them to different sections of the prison.

At about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, one man said in a message that officials wanted to move him and others to a tier that had housed inmates who tested positive for novel coronavirus. He believed that tier had not been cleaned. "Things just went from bad to worse," he said. "Please pray."

An inmate messaged on Wednesday afternoon that officers called for reinforcements when prisoners resisted appeals for them to move.

"I'm not moving back to a tier that hasn't been sanitized," he said. "Sorry but you're not going to put me at risk when I do my part and stay away from people."

Eighteen inmates involved in the disturbance were placed in segregation pending an internal investigation, DOC spokeswoman Susan Biller said.

Fear of the coronavirus continues to be a part of daily life in Washington and across the country. Washington's number of positive COVID-19 cases has climbed to 9,608 as of Thursday afternoon, including 446 deaths.

Nationally, the issue of how to protect prison and jail staff and those incarcerated from a widespread outbreak is being debated.

Corrections officials in Washington have been reluctant to undertake more aggressive steps enacted at the county level and in other states to protect the incarcerated from being exposed to the virus.

North Dakota and Utah were among a handful of states that moved to identify inmates who might be eligible for release in order to reduce prison populations. Utah began freeing the first of at least 80 inmates this month who both had a place to live that was approved by officials and had already been scheduled for release within the next three months. North Dakota planned to release more than 50 prisoners.

In Washington, meanwhile, King County had worked to reduce its jail populations by more than 500 inmates since the area became the nation's first epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak. Two key measures involved reducing the types of offenses that could land inmates in jail.

King County jails will not book people charged only with misdemeanors, unless their crimes involved assault, protection-order violations, DUIs or sex crimes.

In court documents responding to the Columbia Legal Services lawsuit, Washington corrections officials have cited a variety of factors in resisting calls for releasing inmates, including that state law requires them to provide at least 30 days' advance notice to victims whose assailants are being released.

Susan Leavell, senior administrator of the DOC's Reentry Division, said early release of inmates during the pandemic and financial crisis could also be detrimental to inmates as they transition back into society. They would face limited employment options, as well as less access to mental-health services and drug treatment than usual, she said in a court filing.

"These releases would jeopardize public safety and the well-being of the individuals who would be released," she said.

In another court filing, DOC officials calculated that accepting the Columbia Legal Services lawsuit demands in their entirety would result in the release of more than 11,700 of the state's 19,000 people in state custody, including 5,272 serving time for murder, manslaughter, rape, child molestation or assault.