Masked protestors stand outside the grounds of the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe on Thursday. (Kevin Clark | The Herald)

Masked protestors stand outside the grounds of the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe on Thursday. (Kevin Clark | The Herald)

State ready to free hundreds of prisoners amid COVID-19

OLYMPIA — The state could begin freeing hundreds of inmates from Washington prisons by the weekend as authorities move to protect inmates from COVID-19 by thinning the population behind bars.

The state Department of Corrections published the names of 1,167 inmates set to be let out early, but did not say where they were locked up, or for what crime. As of Thursday, releases were set to begin in the next 48 hours.

Corrections officials said they intend to release inmates who are near the end of their sentences and not serving time for violent or sex offenses. And prisoners getting out must have an established address and a current Washington state identification, according to information from the department.

The department is taking this route in response to a state Supreme Court order to do more to reduce prisoners’ risk of exposure to coronavirus, especially those considered most vulnerable due to their age or underlying medical conditions. About 18,000 people are held in state prisons, meaning it affects about 6½ percent of the inmate population.

Ten prisoners in a minimum security unit and five staff at the Monroe Correctional Complex had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday. Monroe is the only prison in the state where inmates have been confirmed to have the disease.

Last week, amid news of the initial outbreak, dozens of prisoners in a minimum security wing of the Monroe prison refused orders in a kind of protest, leading a prison response team to use pepper spray and rubber pellets to quell the unrest.

Inmates petitioned the court last month to order large-scale release. It was an emergency order filed by their attorneys that prompted the Supreme Court to push the state to act right away. Oral arguments on the original petition are scheduled to be heard by the high court April 23.

On Thursday, inmate attorneys said the state isn’t doing enough. Family members and supporters of inmates housed at Monroe Correctional Complex protested outside the facility’s fenced perimeter.

Among them was Lisa Dunlap, of Bow, who said she had not spoken with her son, Todd Sloan, since April 3. The Sedro-Woolley father of two has Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis — and he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I want my son safe,” she said. “I want his health managed appropriately. I would like him to get early release if possible. I would prefer to bring him out, keep him isolated and help him recover.”

Sloan, 28, is serving time for drug offenses, she said. His scheduled release is Nov. 12, although prior to contracting COVID-19, he had been in line to be let out on work release May 12. Now, she said, she doesn’t know what will happen. She said she’s heard from prison officials pretty much daily assuring her that he’s receiving needed attention and care.

“I want to hear from him, to find out how he is doing,” she said.

Twyla Kill, the wife of petitioner and inmate Terry Kill, joined the demonstration after participating in a news conference with other relatives of inmates. Her husband is not one of the ill inmates.

“We want the right to monitor our loved ones. I know how to quarantine my husband in my home,” she said, adding she didn’t trust correctional officers to provide emergency care, should he need it. “None of this is okay. We’re terrified.”

Meanwhile, some lawmakers and law enforcement leaders strongly opposed any early releases. They wanted Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of Corrections Steve Sinclair to pursue other means of complying with the court order.

“My objection to their release is public safety, the safety of our residents both in Snohomish County and Washington state should be a priority for the government,” Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney said.

In an earlier Facebook post, Fortney wrote: “The citizens of our county and state are already feeling anxious, are not able to work, and are sheltering in place for the most part. This mass release of prisoners will simply add to that anxiety of our citizens.”

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, whose district includes Monroe, said corrections officials told him in March that they were “well prepared to properly isolate inmates with contagious diseases. I believed that was the case then, and I believe it is the case now.”

“The fact that the administration is acquiescing to a yet-unfinished court proceeding is troubling,” Wagoner added.

In a statement issued Thursday, Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor said, “The Supreme Court did not order (Inslee) to do this. It’s an extreme response that just doesn’t make sense. We have resources and ways to do what the court is asking without putting our communities at further risk.”

Inslee signed a proclamation and an emergency commutation order Wednesday. Inmates identified on the department website are awaiting release through commutations, a rapid re-entry program and work release furloughs. The roster total was in excess of the 950 inmate estimate mentioned by state officials earlier this week.

The commutation order applies to prisoners with an earned release date before June 30, as long as they were not convicted of a violent or sexual offense. It directs their release within seven days. The order requires corrections officials make a reasonable effort to contact victims and witnesses at least 48 hours in advance of release.

Those to be released through the rapid re-entry program will be subject to electronic monitoring up to six months.

Sinclair will use his authority as corrections secretary to grant emergency furloughs to incarcerated people in work release. According to the agency, inmates who violate terms of their furlough or electronic monitoring could be returned to prison.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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