Five people serving time in Washington prisons are suing Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Steve Sinclair, seeking release for themselves and thousands of other inmates at serious risk if the novel coronavirus pandemic were to sweep through crowded cell blocks.
In a 70-page petition to the Washington State Supreme Court, filed Tuesday, attorneys with Columbia Legal Services argue Inslee and Sinclair are violating the state constitution by failing to act swiftly to protect the health of inmates confined in prisons ill-equipped to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak.
Nick Straley, one of the attorneys, said they are seeking quick review by the Supreme Court for the case, which has been bolstered by sworn declarations from an ex-DOC Secretary and the head of the state’s hospital association.
The lawsuit seeks the release of all people in DOC custody who are 50 years or older, as well as any who have serious health problems, and anyone with scheduled early release dates within the next 18 months. Straley said with few exceptions such people should be let go, no matter the reason for their incarceration. “This pandemic does not make a distinction based on the crime,” he said.
On Tuesday, 2,469 coronavirus cases had been confirmed in Washington, with 123 deaths.
Three DOC employees and one contractor have tested positive for coronavirus so far. There were no reported cases among the 18,000 people in DOC custody at the state’s 12 prisons. But supporters of the lawsuit contend it’s only a matter of time before the disease ravages the prison system.
Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said in an email the governor and his staff “are aware of the issue and take it seriously.”
The five inmates named in the lawsuit suffer from serious health problems, including seizures, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, putting them at greater risk of dying if infected by the virus. They describe living conditions that make it hard, if not impossible, to follow public-health advice on social distancing.
Leondis Berry, one of the petitioners, is a 46-year-old man at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. He has been in prison since 2001 after being convicted or robbery and a carjacking spree. He has had two heart attacks and four heart surgeries. He has a pacemaker, lives in a unit where 136 men share showers, toilets and gym areas, and “is very concerned that he is at risk of severe illness or death if he is exposed to the COVID-19 virus,” the lawsuit says.
Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the state DOC, said the department does not comment on pending litigation. But she said DOC “takes the health, safety and well-being of our employees, those incarcerated in our care and our communities very seriously and has mounted a systemwide emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis.”
The lawsuit filed Tuesday is backed by former DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke, who said in a sworn declaration the COVID-19 virus “represents a serious and unprecedented risk to the health and safety of people in DOC custody and DOC staff” and that reducing the prison population would help cut those risks.
Cassie Sauer, president of the Washington Hospital Association, said hospitals are worried about being overwhelmed with patients if the coronavirus shoots through the prison system. “The question is not if, but when COVID-19 begins to spread in Washington’s prisons and jails,” she said in a declaration.
Fourteen civil liberties and advocacy groups last week called on Inslee to release people from prisons, through his clemency and emergency powers. Inslee has not yet taken such actions, but other officials locally and nationally have moved to let some people out of lockups in response to the coronavirus.
King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order Monday suspending the county work-release program, which has people convicted of low-level crimes, or in some cases awaiting trial, spending nights in jail while leaving for work during the day.
King County has decreased the number of adults incarcerated by more than 300 over the past few weeks, from 1,940 on March 1 to 1,638 on Tuesday, according to a news release from Constantine’s office.
The inmate population in Snohomish County’s jail also has dropped by 30% as of last week, with officials avoiding sending people held on minor offenses, or with health problems, to the lockup, the Everett Herald reported.
Fears have been rising among families of inmates. Mary Connine, who is not a part of the new lawsuit, worries about her husband, who is serving an eight-month sentence for a felony drunken-driving violation at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.
She says her husband, who is in his 70s, would not fare well should an outbreak occur within the prison because of his age, past battles with cancer and surgeries. “Frankly he’s afraid, he’s very vulnerable,” she said.
She said her husband told her that inmates continue to eat together in an enclosed area, and that cells meant to hold two inmates sometimes hold several as corrections officials work to clean parts of the 1,200-inmate facility. She was not sure what prompted the cleaning.
Connine has reached out to her husband’s attorney, a prosecutor and the governor’s office in hopes of finding help in addressing her concerns.
She does not dispute her husband’s conviction or sentence. But she questions why more is not being done to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 among inmates — especially those who are older. She would like to see her husband released.
“They still have a right to live,” she said of inmates.