Incarcerated Workers Exposed to Covid Under Threat of Retaliation
Incarcerated people are five times more likely to contract COVID in prisons and jails (ABC News). We all breathe the same recycled air and touch the same dirty surfaces in crowded and unsanitary living conditions. Every seasonal cold spreads through these places like a bushfire, infecting even the cleanest prisoners. Yet a couple of weeks ago, a group of Washington state prisoners, including myself, were told to enter into a neighboring prison undergoing a COVID outbreak to work during the week, returning to our own facility in the evenings. Failing to put our lives on the line by entering into the contaminated building, we were told, would result in a disciplinary infraction that could prolong our incarceration.
Early in the pandemic, the prison where I’m currently housed, one of five in a prison complex in Monroe, Washington, became the first in the state to report active cases of COVID-19. It was also the first institution in the country to riot over staff negligence in their handling of COVID in prisons and jails.
The negligence on the part of the Department of Corrections (DOC) would only continue. Restrictive measures were implemented that made it impossible to socially distance. Guards protested to their union about having to wear masks while at work. We were denied CDC-recommended equipment like alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The outbreak spread into another prison within the same complex, whose gymnasium was converted into a hospital unit. Live-in medical tents appeared in the recreation yard of a third prison within the same complex, the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU). Both guards and prisoners died. I caught COVID in February of 2021. Like some of my neighbors, I was left with lingering effects, including a heart condition.
The outbreaks slowly faded as prison populations approached herd immunity until last month when the Twin Rivers Unit, though no neighboring facilities such as my one, entered outbreak status once again.
On November 26th, I was working on my latest book from atop my metal bunk when a message rang over the intercom for me and a few others to report to the Administrative Building. There, a sergeant said that because all of TRU’s incarcerated workers were quarantined, we were being sent in to work for Correctional Industries (CI), an outside company that generates around $70 million per year by running factories in prisons and paying incarcerated workers slave wages.
Per DOC policy, working for CI is optional. But when some of us respectfully declined, we were told that we were going to receive disciplinary infractions, which carry loss of “good time.” Some caved and took the job. After what COVID did to my heart, I would rather stay in prison than risk what a second round might do to me. I continued to refuse. Somebody from Correctional Industries came to talk me into going a few days later. I finally responded, “I’m sorry. I understand we’re dealing with a crisis here, but the real solution is to bring in workers from the free world, pay them at least minimum wage, and stop being reliant on slave labor.” Before I even finished the last sentence, he turned and stormed away without a word.
The local Family Council—an advocacy group of loved ones of incarcerated individuals—raised the issue with DOC administrators so disciplinary infractions were never written. But it was too late. Many took the job rather than risk extending their incarceration. They’ve been going to the prison in the midst of an outbreak five days a week, risking contracting the deadly virus and bring it back to the rest of us. As of Friday, December 3rd, there were 77 active cases of Coronavirus in TRU, and the numbers are still rising. Those testing positive are being moved to a closed unit in WSR, and two weeks later, released into WSR’s general population, rather than returned to their units in TRU.
For Washington state prisoners, this blatant disregard for our lives comes as no surprise. We’re used to it. What continues to baffle us is that the public still seems disinterested in holding the DOC accountable. We’re finally at a point in history in which it’s widely understood that our so-called criminal justice system is little more than a trap that captures people from the most disenfranchised sectors of society. Why aren’t we doing more to change it?
• Incarcerated people are five times more likely to contract COVID.
• People in prison are exposed to infection while forced to work for private corporations.
• Correctional institutions need to be held accountable for the well-being of prisoners and their response to COVID in prisons and jails.