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WA Office of Corrections Ombuds, COVID-19 Monitoring Visit to MCC Report, 2020

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STATE OF WASHINGTON

OFFICE OF THE CORRECTIONS OMBUDS
2700 Evergreen Parkway NW  Olympia, Washington 98505  (360) 664-4749

April 17, 2020
Steve Sinclair, Secretary
Department of Corrections (DOC)
Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) Monitoring Report
Enclosed is the report of the monitoring visit that the Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO)
conducted to the Monroe Correctional Complex on April 10, 2020. OCO staff were joined on the
visit by State Representative Roger Goodman and Governor Inslee’s Criminal Justice Policy
Advisor, Sonja Hallum.
I appreciate that since Friday’s visit, DOC has made several positive decisions to both release
individuals and to improve conditions of confinement for persons in isolation. Regarding the
latter, OCO believes even more should be done to improve conditions in isolation units around
the state and we would appreciate additional attention to the matter. Thank you for the
opportunity to work collaboratively with DOC to identify issues in need of improvement.
Any member of the public who wishes to report a concern to OCO is welcome to contact the
office at (360) 664-4749 or at the address above. All concerns are logged into the OCO database
and used as part of its overall reporting to policymakers and analysis of issues within DOC.
Sincerely,

Joanna Carns
Director
cc: Governor Inslee

OCO Monitoring Visit to Monroe Correctional Complex
Background


The Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) received numerous concerns regarding the
Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19, including lack of adequate
prevention measures and poor conditions of confinement for those on quarantine or
isolation status. These concerns particularly centered around Monroe Correctional
Complex (MCC), which is the site of 12 positive COVID-19 testing results of both staff
and incarcerated individuals, as of April 10, 2020. Further, on the evening of April 8,
2020, over a hundred individuals at MCC in the Minimum Security Unit (MSU)
reportedly engaged in a mass disturbance. For the above reasons, on April 10, 2020, OCO
Director Joanna Carns, accompanied by Washington State Representative Roger
Goodman, Criminal Justice Policy Advisor to Governor Inslee Sonja Hallum, and OCO
Early Resolution Ombuds & Racial Equity staff LaQuesha Turner, conducted a
monitoring visit to MCC. The purpose of the visit was threefold: (1) conduct a welfare
check on any individuals placed in a disciplinary unit due to involvement in the
disturbance; (2) inspect the units where it occurred and speak with incarcerated
individuals in those units; and (3) observe quarantine and isolation conditions of
confinement.

Executive Summary/Key Findings


The facility is unable to effectively impose social distancing due to facility structure and
population size. Both staff and incarcerated individuals asked for a release of individuals
to create greater space and smaller cohorts of individuals, which would also reduce stress
on staff.
o Staff may make isolated attempts to impose social distancing in chow halls or
other designated areas, but incarcerated individuals physically cannot social
distance in the hallways of housing units, around phones, in lines, and other areas.
Both incarcerated and staff were observed in congregate groups.
o Further, the large populations housed together results in larger quarantine
populations when a single individual becomes symptomatic, ultimately resulting
in a large amount of stress in the population, potentially leading to disturbances.



Staff are under tremendous stress. Multiple negative interactions were viewed between
the staff and the incarcerated, and between staff themselves. DOC administrators shared
that staff shortages due to COVID-positive or quarantined staff have resulted in several
dozen staff working overtime and serving in relief roles, causing confusion and
disruption in the units.

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

Incarcerated individuals reported that stress, fear, and frustration with both their situation
and with staff resulted in the disturbance.



Individuals in disciplinary isolation for involvement in the disturbance appeared to not
have suffered mistreatment or injuries and were receiving food.



All units appeared clean. However, incarcerated individuals reported a delay in fresh
laundry exchange and were observed not using preferred chemicals for cleaning.



Symptomatic individuals in isolation did not report medical distress and reported that
they were receiving medical care. However, conditions in isolation are grim, with
individuals reporting only receiving showers once a week, complete lack of access to
communication with loved ones or legal counsel, lack of any personal property including
televisions or Jplayers, lack of recreation, and poor cell conditions.

Statutory Authority


Per RCW 43.06C.050, OCO has “reasonable access” to all state correctional facilities in
order to monitor compliance with respect to the rights and safety of incarcerated
individuals.

Observations
Disciplinary Unit

1



According to the DOC press release following the incident, over a hundred incarcerated
persons were involved in a disturbance at the MSU, reportedly due to recent positive tests
for COVID-19.1 Later reports indicated that slightly more than 50 people were “actively”
involved. DOC moved 18 people to the disciplinary unit at SOU. The monitor group
walked the unit to speak at cellfront with the individuals.



All individuals reported that they had not suffered any mistreatment and were receiving
food. They had not yet received showers or out of cell time, but none appeared upset by
that and all appeared to expect that these basic privileges would be afforded. No one
reported any medical concerns, or any concerns in general other than the fact that almost
all of them reported that they were not involved in the incident and should not be in the
IMU, discussed below.



The monitor group also observed the use of staff PPE while opening cuffports and
passing items to and from the incarcerated population. [Photos D and E in the Appendix]

https://www.doc.wa.gov/news/2020/04082020p.htm

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

Almost all of the individuals appeared to disclaim any participation or liability in the
incident.2 As there are no cameras in the MSU at MCC, objective evidence is difficult to
obtain. DOC administrative staff said that they were relying on statements by both staff
and other incarcerated individuals to identify the 18 individuals. Subsequent to the
monitoring visit, staff relayed that likely only ten individuals would receive infractions
and that the evidence included self-admissions.

Minimum Security Unit (MSU)


The monitor group then toured both D unit and B unit of the MSU. D unit is where the
disturbance happened. Staff reported that mattresses and other items had been used to
barricade doors and entryways, and that there was general destruction of the unit. [See
Photos G and H in the Appendix.]



The environment in the units could be described as tense. The monitoring group observed
several negative interactions between staff and the incarcerated. At one point, a member
of the monitoring group intervened in a discussion because she feared a physical
confrontation was about to erupt. Incarcerated individuals relayed that this negative
interaction was a primary cause of the disturbance, that there was an “us versus them”
attitude rather than both groups working together through the conflict. They reported that
incarcerated individuals were frustrated that staff would only enforce social distancing at
times “for show” such as at the chow hall, which disrupted programming and recreation,
but then they had to crowd together in the housing units anyway. They further reported
that staff themselves did not social distance and were concerned they were the ones
bringing in the disease.



Incarcerated individuals relayed that staff sent mixed messages of both promoting social
distancing as the best way to stay safe from contracting coronavirus and at the same time
attempted to “bribe” them into moving into congregate housing by giving them
McDonalds, which they said was disingenuous. DOC staff relayed that the food was not a
bribe but a positive gesture in a difficult time.



Social distancing was not observed by either staff or incarcerated individuals and it was
not possible in the MSU space. To use the phones, individuals had to sit close together.
The hallways are narrow and individuals had to closely pass each other. Individuals also
crowded together at the doorways. [See Photos in the Appendix.]



The incarcerated individuals relayed that they had not had linen/laundry exchange in two
weeks, which included sheets, towels, and even their underwear that they had to wear

2

From their reports, there was a fire alarm earlier in the day, causing the doors to open via an emergency system.
The individuals exited to the yard. A sergeant came out and told them to return to their cells, which they reportedly
complied with. They saw officers “lined up with bean bag guns.” Reports vary as to whether they were all directed
back outside or whether staff asked for any individuals not involved in the incident to return to the yard; after they
returned to the yard, they were directed to sit down on the ground, their hands were ziptied, and escorted to the IMU.

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several days. They shared that there were fresh linens available behind a locked area that
they were not allowed by staff to access. Staff stated the incarcerated had been due for a
linen exchange on Wednesday, which had been disrupted by the disturbance, and that it
would be addressed.


The general housing unit area appeared clean and the unit smelled of bleach. However,
although the smell of bleach may be comforting to persons for whom the smell is
synonymous with cleanliness, it is not one of the preferred EPA-approved disinfectants
recommended for use and may be an irritant to those with breathing conditions.
Containers of appropriate disinfectants were sitting out, but it was unclear where or how
they were being used and an incarcerated individual was observed using a bleach solution
to wipe down the phone. When asked why, he responded that it was “quicker” since the
recommended disinfectants have to sit for a period of time on the surface in order to be
effective.



It was apparent that both the incarcerated and staff had the option to wear masks. Some
but not all staff and incarcerated individuals wore masks or other PPE. During the
monitoring visit, it was announced that a directive had gone out from Secretary Sinclair
that would require staff to wear masks and provide for masks to be given out to all
incarcerated.

Isolation Unit for Symptomatic Individuals (E Unit)


The monitoring group consisting of the OCO Director and staff accompanied by the DOC
Chief Medical Officer and infectious disease expert proceeded to the isolation unit for
those with symptoms or those who had tested positive for COVID-19.



A primary issue evident on the unit was once again staff stress. The monitoring team
observed negative staff interactions with the incarcerated, with each other, and with the
monitoring team. It is quite difficult to imagine the mental and emotional strain of the
custody staff coming in each day to work with a population sick with a terrifying
pandemic disease and who are kept in stark conditions for which they have legitimate
complaints, but the staff do not have the power to change.



Of the two tiers, the OCO Director went on the one with the diagnosed positive cases and
collected letters from both. The individuals on the tier appeared to be in good health; all
were asked about their medical care and none had any concerns in that regard, which is
very good. However, they did have a number of concerns about conditions of
confinement, as outlined below.



E unit was a previously soft-closed segregation unit that was reopened for this specific
purpose. In speaking with an incarcerated worker on the unit who had been held on the
unit in isolation and who volunteered to continue working on the unit once he was
released, the unit was reportedly freezing cold with cold, brown, undrinkable water. The
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room temperature had since improved, as felt by the monitoring team, but the cold,
brown water reportedly was still an issue. One individual reported that when he attempts
to use the sink, it floods the entire cell. He showed that he was using his linens on the
floor around the toilet to soak up the water. Other individuals in neighboring cells
reported similar issues.


The primary concern was the lack of access to telephones to speak with their loved ones,
both for their own emotional wellbeing and for their families, who were worried and
without any information. They reported that they had paper and pencils, but as they were
completely without personal property, they did not have their address books to know
where to send the letters. One individual stated that he did not have his reading glasses to
be able to write. They also were worried about sending letters to their loved ones,
concerned that it might be infectious, indicating they also did not have access to basic
information about the disease and contamination.



The second large concern was the lack of access to showers. Staff relayed that the
incarcerated were allowed showers three times a week, but multiple incarcerated
individuals stated that they were only allowed one shower every seven days and in
between were offered what was colloquially known as a “birdbath.” The birdbath is a
basin with hot water and a rag. [Photo R in Appendix.]
o Note: The decision to limit showers was made by DOC’s Chief Medical Officer
and infectious disease expert to reduce the spread of the disease.



The third primary concern was the lack of access to personal property, including anything
with which to occupy their minds. They did not have personal televisions or Jplayers, and
it did not appear that they had much if any reading material. They had no access to news
or information. They felt frustration at being kept in stark conditions. One individual’s
chief request was simply coffee, which he had brought with him to E unit and then was
not allowed to have.



Individuals raised concerns about the lack of recreation, stating that they only were able
to leave their cells once a week to get an X-ray. They stated that “guys in IMU are treated
better,” which is an accurate statement when it comes to the level of privileges.
o Note: The decision to limit recreation was also made by DOC’s Chief Medical
Officer and infectious disease expert, also to reduce the spread of the virus.



Individuals on the other tier who passed letters for OCO reported that they were placed in
isolation on little to no basis. One wrote, “I was put in here on 3-22-20 with a small rash
on my leg and a cough. I was told 14 days in admittance. Then I was told 14 days after no
more symptoms. Then I was told I would be released on April 8th, and on April 9th I was
told I coughed on March 30th so my 14 days started all over again on April 12th I would
6

be here three weeks. I’m not sick and I want out of isolation…I can’t call my family, no
shower in 1 week now. I haven’t been outside since March 22nd. This whole operation
over here is horrible. I want out! Please get me out of here.” Another wrote, “I never said
I had symptoms of sickness. I was ripped up and out of bed at midnight on April 5, 2020.
I tested negative for COVID for which they said I had symptoms for and was recently
moved from the 5 COVID-infected people. But now I am still around the sickness. This
is a punishment…I want to go back. I never had any symptoms.” [Photos N and P in
Appendix.]


Based on the concerns relayed, it was unclear how decisions were made regarding
privileges, what rationale existed to strictly limit privileges and property, and who was
responsible for ensuring basic quality of life. For example, the individual’s request for
coffee clearly has neither a security nor a public health implication and yet it was denied.
Facility administrative staff relayed that personal property wasn’t allowed in isolation
because they had been told they would have to destroy it after the person left; medical
staff relayed there was no medical need to do that. DOC administrative staff at
Headquarters had clearly engaged in a discussion about the bare minimum of privileges to
be afforded, but it was unclear whether staff had also held a discussion about the
maximum privileges that could be given while also maintaining public health standards,
or had made attempts to ask the individuals in isolation what would make their situation
more tolerable while they were afflicted with a potentially deadly disease through no
fault of their own.
o Officers on the unit were asked who made decisions about unit operations and the
answer given was the “Emergency Operations Center.”
o Staff also indicated that barriers existed to effective, efficient decision-making,
with all decisions having to be approved by the US Center for Disease Control
and the WA Department of Health. In a quickly evolving situation like a
pandemic, greater speed may be necessary.

7

DOC Response

8

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Appendix
Photo A

Caption: Entry officer with screening questions and touchless temperature gun.
Photo B

Caption: From left, Superintendent Mike Obenland, Superintendent Jack Warner, Criminal
Justice Policy Advisor to Governor Inslee Sonja Hallum, and State Representative Roger
Goodman, standing in IMU
19

Photo C

Caption: OCO Early Resolution Ombuds & Racial Equity staff LaQuesha Turner
Photo D

Caption: Officer wearing PPE distributing toilet paper to incarcerated individuals in IMU
20

Photo E

Caption: Officer in PPE taking trash from incarcerated individuals in IMU
Photo F

Caption: Cell in IMU for individual charged with involvement in disturbance
21

Photo G

Caption: Photo of destruction of MSU unit during disturbance
Photo H

Caption: Photo of destruction of MSU during the disturbance.

22

Photo I

Caption: Housing unit in MSU
Photo J

Caption: Incarcerated individuals crowded at doorway in MSU
23

Photo K

Caption: Individuals at phones in MSU
Photo L

Caption: Representative Goodman talking to an incarcerated individual in MSU hallway
24

Photo M

Caption: E Unit tier of symptomatic but non-COVID-positive individuals
Photo N

Caption: Letter with concerns from non-positive tier of isolation
25

Photo O

Caption: Letter with concerns from non-positive tier in isolation
Photo P

Caption: Letter with concerns from the non-positive isolation tier

26

Photo Q

Caption: Outdoor recreation area on E unit, used as staging area
Photo R

Caption: Basin used as a “birdbath” for self-bathing in E unit

27

Photo S

Caption: OCO Director on E unit tier with COVID-positive individuals
Photo T

Caption: Letter with concerns from COVID-positive individual on isolation unit
28

Photo U

Caption: Letter with concerns from COVID-positive individual on isolation unit
Photo V

Caption: Letter with concerns from COVID-positive individual on isolation unit

29

Photo W

Caption: Letter with concerns from COVID-positive individual

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