State Supreme Court to Decide if Inmates Should Be Released Due to COVID-19


A lawsuit that has fast-tracked its way to the state Supreme Court argues that the state is failing to protect inmates from the COVID-19 pandemic and should quickly reduce the prison population as a remedy to get a handle on the situation. But prosecutors throughout Washington say the lawsuit's demands could force the release of two-thirds of the prison population, including some of the state's most notorious offenders.

The court is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday.

The lawsuit filed in late March by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of five inmates seeks their release and requests the state "reduce" the prison population to ensure inmates' safety from the spread of COVID-19. The lawsuit points to Gov. Jay Inslee's emergency declaration for the public and said inmates legally should have the same safety opportunities.

Columbia Legal Services asked the state's highest court to force Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair to reduce crowded situations it says make social distancing now impossible.

The response to the lawsuit by the state Office of the Attorney General notes that the request doesn't account for severity of crimes. It contends that what the lawsuit seeks could result in the release of almost 12,000 inmates, possibly even "Green River Killer" Gary Ridgway and Isaac Zamora, who killed six people and injured four others in a shooting spree in Skagit County in 2008.

"We're not talking about low-level druggies and low-level property crimes," Skagit County Chief Deputy Criminal Prosecutor Rosemary Kaholokula told the Skagit Valley Herald Tuesday. "We're talking about really bad people."

In its "friend of the court" brief, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys wrote that not only would public safety be put at risk by mass releases of prisoners, many inmates would quickly find themselves homeless and without means to care for themselves.

There is also concern about how the release could affect the justice system at the county level. Counties throughout Washington have so far managed caseloads during the crisis well, but that could change, the association argues.

"The counties' best efforts will be undone if thousands of felons return to the community," the brief states.

JoAnn Kennedy, whose ex-husband Greg Gillum of Mount Vernon was killed by Zamora, is one of many who have submitted victim impact statements to the high court in advance of the hearing.

"The impact of COVID-19 is devastating," Kennedy wrote. "But to think that the person who killed the father of my children could go free because of it is something that never, ever crossed my mind."

People on both sides of the issue, including victims and their families, are waiting and wondering whether the court will order releases due to the pandemic and if so, who that might include.

"I am concerned about any possibility of some of these very dangerous individuals being released," Kaholokula said. "I am concerned about some of the victims who have expressed concern that they would need to move immediately should these defendants be released."

Colvin et al v Inslee et al

The first positive COVID-19 case in a state prison was documented on April 5. As of April 20, 12 inmates from Monroe Correctional Complex and 13 staff members at various state prisons had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Corrections.

Inslee ordered Corrections on April 15 to release about 1,100 inmates statewide. His order was narrow in scope -- only those who were already scheduled for release by June 29 and who had not been convicted of a violent, serious or sex offense.

"The lawsuit is requesting much, much more than that," Kaholokula said.

Columbia Legal Services is asking the Supreme Court to order Inslee and Sinclair to release any inmate over age 50, any inmate with an underlying health issue including those who are pregnant or mentally ill, or anyone with 18 months or less left on their sentence.

"Time is of the essence," their brief states. "Each day that passes when the Governor and Secretary of DOC fail to use their authority to reduce the prison population brings us one step closer to a COVID-19 crisis within DOC -- a crisis that the prison system is ill-prepared to handle."

Those suffering from mental illness are at greater risk of contracting and spreading the disease, according to the suit, because "people living with mental health conditions may be less likely to appreciate their symptoms, understand what to do if they become ill, or respond appropriately if isolated or quarantined."

Keeping such inmates incarcerated while the death toll caused by the pandemic rises violates the inmates' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, the suit states.

According to data from Corrections, based on the criteria in the lawsuit's request, released inmates would include 470 people serving life sentences, and 5,272 serving sentences for offenses such as murder, rape and child molestation.

"In fact, Petitioners' proposal would require the release of two of Washington's most notorious serial killers, Gary Ridgway and Robert Yates," the state asserts.

Ridgway is serving a life sentence in the slayings of at least 48 women. Yates was originally sentenced to death for the murder of 13 people, including one in Skagit County.

In his declaration to the court, submitted in his role as director of the Research and Data Analytics Unit within the Administrative Operations Division of Corrections, Dr. David Luxton identifies Zamora, as well as several now-former death row inmates, as meeting the criteria laid out by the petitioners.

"If Isaac Zamora ... and the 610 mentally ill offenders are released ... , it will not be possible to supervise them in the community," the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys wrote. "The threat to community safety by such an arbitrary release is not justified in law or by reason."

In 2013, most of the families of those killed by Zamora agreed to a $9 million settlement that stated Skagit County was partially responsible for the murders because it should have provided better supervision of Zamora. He is currently being held at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

"I understand that one of the primary purposes of the prison system is rehabilitation with the expectation of eventual release," wrote Jeanine Rood, whose cousin, Skagit County sheriff's deputy Anne Jackson, was one of Zamora's victims. "Further, many prisoners, if released early, pose little risk to society. This is not the case for mass murderers like Isaac Zamora. In addition to putting additional innocents at grave risk, releasing Mr. Zamora at any time punishes, disrespects and diminishes the multitude of survivors who live every day with the memory of his atrocities."

In a rebuttal of the state's brief, Columbia Legal Services states that Corrections' specific use of Ridgway and Yates ignores the fact that not every incarcerated person is a serial killer.

"Many people, like all of the (five) Petitioners, can be released without compromising public safety," Columbia Legal Services asserts. "Of course, there will be unique circumstances that will not allow individual people, like Mr. Ridgway, to be released."

The state, however, argues that based on the language of the lawsuit, there is no consideration for "unique circumstances" and that Corrections is being asked to rely strictly on the three outlined factors and to do so very quickly.

{p class="p2"}"We obviously have huge concerns about people who are supposed to be in prison for a significant period of time being released without concern for the impacts of their being free in our community," Kaholokula said. "And without any consideration of the impact on their victims and witnesses in the cases."

On behalf of victims and counties, prosecutors and the attorney general have other concerns, including how the flood of released inmates would find housing, jobs and be supervised in communities.

"Many of those released would have no access to medical care or stable housing, putting them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and other negative health care consequences," the state's rebuttal says. "In short, the whole premise of Petitioners' case is wrong, as the relief they seek would endanger not only the broader community, but also the very people they seek to have released."

Another concern, Kaholokula said, was whether inmates would actually be safer outside of confinement.

Statewide, more than 12,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 650 have died.

The survivors

With the uncertainty of whether Columbia Legal Services would actually seek the release of all inmates identified as fitting into any of the three categories, prosecutors and victim advocates groups across the state have begun reaching out to victims and their families for impact statements.

Kennedy's was not the only statement against releasing Zamora.

"Every day I see the scars and I feel the bone fragments and bullet fragments within my body," wrote Fred Binschus, who was shot twice by Zamora. His wife of 28 years, Julie Binschus was killed. "I'm haunted by the gun shots and screams of my wife being murdered and me laying there dying from the gun shots and feeling helpless, not being able to help her."

And there are victims from others Skagit County cases who are concerned, as well.

Even in the midst of the global pandemic, the fear of her ex-husband possibly being released from prison has caused Rhonda Polinder to pack her bags and be ready to leave home at a moment's notice.

"If he gets out, he'll find me," Polinder said. "If he can't find me, he'll go after someone who he thinks knows where I am."

In March 2017, Eric D. Woody broke into Polinder's Bay View home and attacked her and her boyfriend with a machete. The attack nearly killed Polinder. She spent six days in the hospital and received 396 stitches, mainly to her head and face, she said. Her left arm was severed.

In August 2018, Woody, then 52, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault with a deadly weapon.

"If he gets out now, he's a ferry ride away," Polinder said. "I have to leave. He's not going to come at me with a machete this time; he's going to come at me with a gun."

Although she lives on the other side of the country, Julia Simmons has a similar fear should the man convicted of killing her uncle be released.

Mark Stover was shot to death in 2009, but a call from the Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney's Office asking for a new victim impact statement has brought the nightmares she endured a decade ago back, she said.

"It was an absolute nightmare," she said. "It was terrifying."

In 2010, at age 42, Michiel Oakes was sentenced to 26 years in prison for Stover's murder. The idea that he could get out now terrifies Simmons.

"I never in a million years imagined that Michiel Oakes would be considered (for early release)," she said. "It scares me."

An advocate of criminal justice reform, Simmons said she supports releasing some inmates to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"But not people who took someone's life," she said. "You have to look at every case. And I know that takes time."

That is what county jails, in partnership with local prosecutors, have done, Kaholokula said.

"We're taking the time necessary to let out the low-level people," she said. "Not the really, really dangerous people."

The lawsuit, however, argues that the state has already reacted too slowly to protect the thousands of inmates now at risk.

In a follow-up request for emergency relief on April 9, the petitioners asked the court to move forward without waiting for the April 23 hearing date for oral arguments.

"The outbreak that Petitioners and many other stakeholders have been warning about for weeks has begun, the Court must immediately step in to address it because the Governor and Secretary Inslee (sic) refuse to do so. An interim ruling and interim relief is appropriate because of the urgency of the circumstances," the document states.

The court did not grant that relief but did order state officials to file an immediate report on steps taken so far to protect inmates.

Arguments will be shown Thursday at 9 a.m. at