Washington Prison Inmates and Families, Dreading Coronavirus Spread, Take Fight to State Supreme Court


The last time Lisa Dunlap spoke with her 28-year-old son, Todd Sloan, he was terrified of catching the novel coronavirus spreading through Monroe Correctional Complex.

Sloan had recently transferred to the Snohomish County prison's minimum-security section, where several men were already infected. He suffers from Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and other medical problems that have caused him to shed 60 pounds and required hospitalizations. "Mom, if I get this it is going to kill me," Dunlap said he told her, crying, in a phone call on April 6.

That was the last time Dunlap heard from her son. After a temperature check found a fever, Sloan was moved to an isolation cell at Monroe, where the state's prison watchdog says inmates have gone without books or personal belongings to pass the time, with some complaining about cold temperatures, brown water and flooding in recent weeks.

Eleven days later, prison staff told Dunlap her son had tested positive for coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19. As of Wednesday, Dunlap said, she had not spoken to him for more than two weeks, as he is not allowed to use a phone. She has received updates from prison staff saying he is recovering, but she said that is not enough.

"I want to hear from my son. I want to hear his voice and know how he is feeling and that he is OK," Dunlap said. Sloan is nearing the end of a 72-month sentence for selling narcotics, and is scheduled for release in November.

Dunlap's worries echo those of inmates and their families across the state. There have been a dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the approximately 19,000 people held by the state Department of Corrections (DOC), all associated with the Monroe prison. But inmates, family members and advocates say the system is ripe for a wave of infections. In interviews over the past two weeks, many told The Seattle Times of a slow and uneven rollout of safety measures, including a lack of hand sanitizer and soap and failure by some staff to wear masks consistently .

Those concerns also are laid out in an emergency petition to the state Supreme Court, which seeks to force Gov. Jay Inslee and the DOC to release thousands of incarcerated, potentially vulnerable people from prisons. Oral arguments in the case are set for Thursday.

An inspection by the state prison watchdog office confirmed problems, finding the Monroe minimum-security unit is "unable to effectively impose social distancing" and noting staff as well as inmates favor releases of prisoners to create more space, according to a report released last week by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds. The report also cited poor conditions in isolation units, including one man reporting an infestation of spiders and silverfish.

Just before corrections officials announced the first COVID-19 case inside the minimum security unit in early April, the ombuds office had collected input from inmates about DOC's response to the virus. Of the hundreds of inmates held in the minimum security unit, 14 provided answers. None said with confidence that social distancing rules were consistently being enforced or that high-touch areas were consistently being cleaned at least every hour.

In a statement, Susan Biller, a DOC spokeswoman, defended the prison system's efforts, saying soap "has always been available" in bathrooms or other common areas where handwashing occurs. She said the DOC has purchased $108,000 worth of soap and distributed it to incarcerated individuals, beginning the last week of March. In addition, she said cleaning supplies have always been available for cleaning living spaces, and that DOC stepped up cleaning of "high-touch surfaces" beginning in mid-March.

Biller added that while she could not provide information on Sloan's condition, the Monroe prison is working on ways to bring properly sanitized phones to isolation cells.

On Thursday morning, the state Supreme Court -- meeting via video conference -- will hear arguments in a lawsuit seeking to force Inslee and the DOC to free thousands of people from incarceration. The emergency petition by Columbia Legal Services argues that incarcerated people, regardless of their crimes, should not be left at risk of death in prisons which have struggled with well-documented health-care failures.

Inslee's administration already has identified 1,100 prisoners for early release; most of them are serving sentences for drug offenses and property crimes that were set to end in the coming months. Inslee's order, announced April 13, included hundreds of commutations, while corrections officials also planned to release inmates through a rapid reentry program that requires they remain under electronic monitoring in the community. Dozens have also been approved for furloughs from work release.

The governor's actions have been called inadequate by advocates for incarcerated people. At the same time, Inslee has faced blowback from Republicans lawmakers who argue his order is potentially illegal and will jeopardize public safety. In other states, news accounts have popped up of people freed from prisons and jails due to coronavirus concerns swiftly committing new crimes. In Florida, for example, a man released from jail was charged with killing a woman one day later, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Some local government officials in Washington also fret about an abrupt influx of former inmates released to their communities.

"There are so many unknowns with this that it is hard to be supportive" said Pierce County Councilmember Connie Ladenburg, a Democrat, who said DOC has not provided counties with enough information about how the inmate releases will be handled. She said Pierce County has a history of taking in more than its fair share of formerly incarcerated people and correctional facilities.

'It's still a mess in here'

Left in limbo are people like Ronney Hamilton -- who was set to be sent to work release last month as he nears the end of a 26-year prison sentence. Instead, he remains quarantined in the Monroe minimum-security's "B" unit, which has been the epicenter of the prison's coronavirus cases. His nightmare is that he may fall victim to the virus when he's so close to getting out.

"It's still a mess in here. We're still on top of each other," Hamilton said in a phone interview, describing the crowded conditions. He added "I think it's going to take someone dying" for problems to be fixed.

Hamilton was sent to prison for a 1998 conviction of attempted murder in Tacoma, committed when he was 18. During what he describes as a drug-related robbery, Hamilton shot a 20-year-old acquaintance, who, according to a Seattle Times article, staggered into a nearby store and scrawled Hamilton's name in blood.

Now 41, Hamilton says he deeply regrets his crime and is burning to make something of his remaining years. His family members, including his wife since 2011, Phyllis, have pleaded with DOC officials to let him move ahead with his transition to work release. He's trained as a barber and dreams of opening up his own shop in Georgia, where his wife lives, and of becoming a motivational speaker.

"I am doing my best. I still try to stay positive. I wasn't meant to be this. Nobody asked me to be better until I met my wife," he said.

Phyllis Hamilton begged DOC officials in an email this week to move her husband to a safer area. "He is getting off quarantine next week and he is going to leave to work release soon and if he keeps getting put back on quarantine because a new person gets sick, he will NEVER get out of there!" she wrote.

Under Inslee's order, DOC is examining whether additional people can be released from prisons. But given the objections so far, a vast expansion of releases could prove politically challenging. And any support could evaporate if the transition to communities is not well handled.

One man from the Monroe prison minimum-security unit last week says he was let out with no test for COVID-19, even though he had been feeling sick.

Joe Pulido, 35, called conditions inside the prison "really sloppy" and said they contributed to the spread of the disease. He said men there were not given masks until two days before he departed on April 14. "They weren't supplying us with any hand sanitizer. It was crazy," he said.

Pulido, now staying at a sober-living house in Thurston County, says he was freed 10 days early on an eight-month sentence for third-degree assault. His release came prior to the DOC's announcement of early releases for 1,100-plus other people from lockups early due to Inslee's order.

Pulido says he's worried he may be ill, saying he's gone several days without being able to taste or smell and is feeling lethargic.

"I was sick for a few days even before I left ... All they did was a temperature check on all our foreheads. They drove me to the bus station and dropped me off," he said. Since leaving, Pulido said, he was tested for influenza, which came back negative. He's trying to get a coronavirus test. "Honestly, I am worried," he said.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments for and against requiring the state to release thousands of additional people from prisons, including any with serious medical conditions. The court could rule on the emergency motion within days.

Meanwhile, Dunlap says she'll be watching the arguments online. She doesn't want her son sent back from his isolation cell into the prison general population.

"I am hoping he can just come home," she said.