Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon via Unsplash

At all times during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been housed at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) in the Baker unit’s closed observation area or segregation unit. In March, the Washington State Department of Corrections provided an attachment to its policy 890.090 Respirator Program and 670.000 Communicable Diseases, Infection Prevention, and Immunization Program that stated all department staff shall be provided N95 masks. On April 10, Department Secretary Stephen Sinclair sent a memo to all Department staff stating that wearing face masks was mandatory. As of June 21, I have only witnessed one department staff member wearing a N95 mask. Staff wearing of masks has been sporadic. 

This is my report: 

March 4, 2020
I learned six inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC). I sent a kite (a prison form of communication) to WSP Superintendent Donald Holbrook asking if MCC was transferring inmates to other institutions. On March 10, Mr. Holbrook responded in part: “This does not involve me at this facility,” and he did not provide an affirmative response. This response raised my concerns that the department or, at the least, WSP was not taking the pandemic seriously.

May 8, 2020
I learned there was one inmate and two staff who tested positive at WSP. I sent a kite to Mr. Holbrook requesting information about what units and areas the affected live or work. On May 11, a WSP official responded: “You will not receive this information.” This further raised my concern that WSP was attempting to suppress information related to infections and responses within WSP.

March 24, 2020
I sent a kite to WSP’s medical unit requesting to donate blood to help with the global shortage. On March 24, I received the response, “I don’t believe we are set up to do this at this time.” There may be a law against prisoners donating blood. I am in prison because twelve random people determined there was enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that I committed a crime. Regardless of this fact, I still want to be a contributing member of society and do my part to improve humanity.

April 15, 2020
I sent a kite to medical notifying them that I have psoriasis, Barrett’s esophagus and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asked about my risk level of catching and dying from COVID-19. I had not received a response, so I submitted another kite on May 1 asking why the prior kite had not been responded to. The same day, the pill line nurse said my previous kite had not been responded to because WSP “has no providers” and that my risk level of catching and/or dying from COVID-19 was no different than any other person in the world. This further raised my concerns about an institution that had no provider and houses, I believe,1,500 inmates including older people with health problems and African Americans who have a higher risk according to news reports.

My understanding, according to what is posted at WSP and witnessed by me, is that if you notify staff that you are not feeling well, you will be taken to the segregation unit and quarantined for 14 days. The notice also stated that you would not be provided a shower for the first seven days. Segregation is the same place you are housed if you are under investigation, pending an infraction, serving a sanction for prison misconduct, or to protect you from others. Because of this, although I had symptoms over 14 days from the date of this letter, I did not notify staff of any physical ailments.

May 8, 2020
I sent a kite to medical requesting to be tested for COVID-19. On May 10, medical responded: “Nobody is tested unless symptomatic.” I sent another kite on May 11, notifying them that according to President Donald Trump, “anyone who wants to get tested can get a test.” Medical responded on May 12: ”The DOC protocol does not cover voluntary testing due to the national shortage of viral media and swabs. We are not testing asymptomatic patients at this time. The general public is not being tested unless they have symptoms or have been exposed to a known COVID-19 case.” As of this date, I have not received a test.

On around April 17, 2020
I received a memorandum stating that I would be receiving a kit containing ”two cloth bandanas, four rubber bands, coffee filters and a tutorial guide.” It appears the tutorial on how to make and wear the mask came from the Center for Disease Control. The memo explained that this was the ”only approved method…using/wearing them in any other fashion other than described in the tutorial is prohibited.”

Every inmate in the unit was issued the items and tutorial. I asked for replacement coffee filters and was told they did not have them. Shortly thereafter, I was directed by the unit sergeant to wear just the bandana like a bandit mask. Inmates have since worn them like that, or they wear different face coverings of various items. Staff are wearing single bandanas as well as masks of various forms, including some with ventilation holes. Often the staff do not wear any face coverings when they are together in spaces that do not allow for six-foot distancing. Several staff don’t wear any face coverings while interacting with the prisoner population, and they carry on conversations in less than a six-foot distance. The other inmates and I will not say anything for fear of reprisal.

According to the new protocols, to enter the prison law library you are to be checked off a list and have your temperature taken before entry. On June 20 at 1:00 p.m. as I was following the procedure, I noticed two correctional officers (COs) not wearing face coverings and not taking the required temperature. The processing area does not allow for six-foot distancing. The law clerk (prisoner) asked the CO if face coverings were optional. The CO appeared agitated about this question and directed the law clerk to return to his unit.

In prison, I can communicate in writing, by phone, or email through JPay.com. I generally can send and receive emails from my cell every five minutes. On May 29, I watched a news report on the local news channel KAPP 35/KVEW 42 ABC Tri-Cities about a COVID-19 outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center and allegations of withholding information to the public about it.

The same day, I sent an email to my father requesting the address to the network or to forward a message about some of the above incidents. The email was withheld for about nine days before it was sent. My father responded on June 9 with the addresses. I did not receive this email until June 19. A friend sent me an email with only the name and address of a FOX news reporter. This was also withheld for nine days. I began communication by email with the editor of a prison newsletter. I sent an email regarding some of the above. That email was rejected on the basis that it was “mail containing another offender’s correspondence“ and “contains information of another incarcerated individual.” The email contained neither. I was not having problems sending or receiving correspondence until the email to my father. Other people have since said they either sent correspondence I have not received or they have not received correspondence from me. 

Columbia Legal Services, based in Seattle, filed a lawsuit against Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and the Department of Corrections over the COVID-19 crisis on behalf of individuals in state custody. Oral arguments before the Washington State Supreme Court was set for April 23. Around that time, hand sanitizer was installed in each of my POD’s (cell blocks). Thirty minutes later it was removed because two staff said inmates were drinking it. I question the truthfulness as it was only there for 30 minutes.

Editor’s note: The Washington State Supreme Court ruled against the people on July 23. Click here for more on the decision,. 

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Jeffrey McKee

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary. He is serving a 25-year sentence. He considers himself to be an outspoken person, and he welcomes opportunities to discuss his knowledge of prisons and the prison system.