By Paul Kiefer
A prison-wide outbreak of COVID-19 at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County last month sickened hundreds of people and forced prison administrators to convert some wings of the prison into quarantine wards. Two weeks later, some of those who were placed in quarantine say that prison administrators have left them in the dark during the ordeal, leaving some unsure of whether they were, in fact, COVID-positive when they were placed in cells with sick inmates.
More than half, or 855, of the 1,600 people incarcerated at Monroe have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 30 days, which represents roughly half of the prison’s total cases since the start of the pandemic. During smaller outbreaks, prison administrators transformed some of the prison’s solitary confinement cells into medical isolation pods for those with the most serious infections. The scale of January’s outbreak, however, overwhelmed the prison’s earlier quarantine strategies and prompted a complicated re-shuffling of prisoners.
In the prison’s largest housing complex, administrators chose to place COVID-positive prisoners in the C unit, which typically holds people convicted of sex offenses. People who were moved to the C unit, however, say that not everyone placed in quarantine is certain they were COVID-positive when they arrived.
Jeremiah Winchester, who tested positive for the virus, said that some C unit residents who tested negative for COVID-19 were left in their cells alongside new COVID-positive arrivals from elsewhere in the prison. “As far as they know, they weren’t sick when we got here,” he said, “but after all this time with us, they’ve probably caught the virus.” Another man incarcerated at Monroe, Darwin Williams, claimed that guards moved him to the C unit after his COVID rapid test came back with inconclusive results. “I still don’t know for sure if I was infected or not when I got here, and they haven’t tested me again,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) didn’t outright deny the inmates’ claims, telling PubliCola that the C unit “currently is housing only COVID-19 positive individuals,” and that prisoners who tested negative “have been removed” from the unit; the spokesperson did not specify when COVID-negative prisoners were removed from the unit.
Robert Washington, who is incarcerated in the C Unit, told PubliCola he initially tested negative for COVID in mid-January and was moved from one wing of the C unit to another, ostensibly to avoid contact with the COVID-positive people moving into the unit. A day later, he said, COVID-positive inmates moved into cells on his wing. “A lot of us who turned up negative on a rapid test were confused at first about why they would place positive people with us,” he said, “but about a week in, some people started getting envelopes with lab results that showed they were infected the whole time.”
Meanwhile, Williams claims that the unit’s guards have left inmates in the dark about when they will be released from quarantine. “It’s like a walking time bomb in here,” he said. “People are confused and frustrated.” In quarantine, he added, prisoners don’t have access to phones, and only some have prison-issued tablets to email friends and relatives on the outside. “We’re shut off from the world right now,” Williams said, “and we don’t get any clues about when this will end.”
On Friday, Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds reported receiving 20 complaints about “testing issues,” in addition to more than 200 complaints about living conditions in quarantine units.
More than 75 percent of prisoners at Monroe were fully vaccinated by the end of last year, outstripping the state’s overall vaccination rate of 70 percent, although few have received booster shots. The prison has avoided any COVID-19-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. Overall, 16 incarcerated people have died from COVID-19 in DOC facilities.