Inmates protested and faced a lockdown at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, as COVID-19 cases shot up from 85 Friday to 237 on Tuesday.
Family members of inmates described the action as a riot. It began when a corrections officer used force on one of the inmates, according to a letter from the Office of the Corrections Ombudsman.
Over the weekend, the beating of another prisoner led to rumors throughout the prison that he had died by choking on pepper spray, said Loren Taylor, a former Stafford employee who now advocates for Stafford prisoners.
Inmates said they saw an officer punch the man in the chest, forcing him into his cell, before holding the door shut and filling the cell with pepper spray, Taylor said.
Some inmates wrote in messages over JPAY, a prison messaging service, that they'd seen the man appear lifeless.
Ombuds Joanna Carns wrote Tuesday that she visited Stafford Creek in response to the rumors and spoke to the man who'd been beaten. He had bruising and minor injuries, she said, though "what he relayed to me about the incident is concerning."
Department of Corrections spokesperson Susan Biller did not respond to requests for an interview.
In response to other complaints of poor conditions throughout the prison , Carns toured several units Tuesday.
She described "legitimate issues," including a lack of clean clothing, cold food and inmates being denied showers.
"The biggest issue was the lack of communication from (Department of Corrections), breakdowns in communication with families — including JPAY messages being censored — and the rumors about the death," she wrote.
Carns said she believed the riot started because of an officer's use of force, in the context of inmates feeling on edge over what they believed was the death of a fellow inmate.
Taylor said she learned about the riot from inmates who messaged that their cells without plumbing had been suddenly locked.
The Department of Corrections told Carns no one had been hurt during the riot.
When asked last week if Carns has found the agency to be honest, she said she didn't believe the department has been "purposefully dishonest."
In her 2019 annual report, Carns described the Department of Corrections as "a soiled bureaucracy," adding that information from it is often "conflicting or inaccurate."
In her letter Tuesday, Carns wrote that she is investigating the use of force and conditions at the prison.
"It is completely natural for fears to take over, particularly when communication with loved ones has been limited and DOC is silent," Carns said. "However, I truly and sincerely ask everyone for calm — both for yourselves and for your incarcerated loved ones."
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