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Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, how is the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) ensuring safety for people serving long sentences in its custody? In the last five months, family members, advocates, organizers, and, most importantly, incarcerated people themselves have shared troubling updates about the pandemic in prisons. What is DOC doing to protect the dignity of people in its care? COVID can be a fatal virus. A pattern is emerging showing that DOC’s response to COVID may avoid fatalities but primarily via abusive and/or neglect. This is especially true for prisoners serving long-term sentences. As such, those most affected tend to be Black, Indigenous and People of Color, women and low-income people.

Join an online press conference at 1:30 pm on Wednesday, August 19, 2020, to hear stories highlighting why DOC must be held accountable. Why is DOC continuing to fail incarcerated individuals and ignore their families’ calls for help? Hear insights on how we can increase access to appropriate medical treatment, end violence and retaliation, and stop the extended and unnecessary use of solitary confinement.

  • When: Wednesday, August 19, 2020, 1:30pm PT
  • Where: Online via Zoom
  • What: Online Press Conference with family members, elected officials, legal representatives, and community advocates who can speak to the COVID-19 crisis in DOC facilities.
  • Who: Speakers will include the following:
      1. Nikkita Oliver, Attorney, Activist, Artist, Community Organizer
      2. The husband of a medically vulnerable woman at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW)
      3. The sister of a man held in solitary for more than 50 days
      4. Danny Waxwing, Attorney, Disability Rights Washington
      5. Nick Allen, Attorney, Columbia Legal Services
      6. Family member who recently engaged in a hunger strike to highlight injustices within prisons during the pandemic
      7. Liban Adem, Formerly Incarcerated Reynolds 6 member
      8. Girmay Zahilay, King County Councilmember
      9. Sade Smith, Lawyer, Attorney
      10. Cassandra, Activist, Scholar and Community Organizer

We can’t ignore the spread of COVID in U.S. prisons. Currently, the U.S. has over 5 million COVID infections and over 160,000 deaths reported nationally. The infection rate for people in DOC facilities is 195% higher than the general population in our state. See The Marshall Project, “A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons,” available at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/05/01/a-state-by-state-look-at-coronavirus-in-prisons When it comes to addressing this crisis, we are all in this together because we are only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk, particularly our incarcerated loved ones. We must ensure that everyone is included in an effective response to this crisis otherwise we will not move beyond it.

Many have pointed out that Washington’s Governor Inslee and DOC Secretary Sinclair have failed to act with urgency. For months, families, advocates, and public health experts have warned that we must pay close attention to how DOC responds to this deadly virus. Close living quarters, the fact that prisons are mostly rural, and the high numbers of poor and Black and Brown people in those facilities sets the stage for catastrophe. By refusing to reduce the prison population, the DOC is fomenting the COVID crisis in prisons and risking lives.

Families are stepping forward in order to share their loved ones’ heart-breaking experiences. These issues include:

Protecting Vulnerable Populations: Families are asking that the DOC stop refusing to do what public health experts have recommended:

    • reduce the prison population
    • release older and medically-compromised people
    • maintain appropriate social distancing within prisons
    • improve medical care
    • ensure humane conditions

One speaker is a husband who will describe how he fears for the life of his 60-year old wife, a resident of WCCW, who has serious health issues, including stage 3 kidney failure and lupus. The DOC refuses to provide her with necessary medical treatment or grant her transfer back into the community to ensure her safety from COVID.

Violence: The public needs to know about the DOC’s violent responses to the pandemic. The sister of a man who has been kept in solitary confinement for over 50 days (1200+ hours). In this case, a trip to the restroom without a mask ended with a beating so severe that this man received a grave eye injury and was subsequently placed on suicide watch. DOC is denying excessive use of force from its staff.

Retaliation: In late-April, six Black and Brown men at a Seattle DOC work release facility faced blatant retaliation after community advocacy for safer conditions inside following a COVID outbreak. The Reynold 6 were, then, thrown back in prison, placed in solitary confinement for several days, wrongly found guilty of serious infractions, and terminated from work release. The Reynolds 6 are now out of prison because of strong advocacy. King County Councilmember Zahilay will address safety concerns in DOC facilities, the need for continued advocacy and social media efforts to listen to families’ concerns about their loved ones inside.

Current Organizing Efforts to Support People in Prison: As the COVID crisis in DOC facilities unfolds, people inside are bravely organizing, including recent hunger strikes. Hear from Rose Harriot, a recent law school graduate with loved ones who are incarcerated as she explains what led her to also do a hunger strike. She stands in solidarity with prisoners who are worried about having no masks, overcrowding,  extremely negligent medical care and the inhumane use of solitary confinement. We will also share demands from people serving long sentences in DOC facilities.

Media Contacts:
Charlie McAteer, charlie.mcateer@columbialegal.org, 917-696-132
Aaron T. Sherman, aaron.sherman@kingcounty.gov, 206-572-3522

#FreeThemAllWA #CareNotCages #Justice4Harold #DefundDOC

Virtual Press Conference Call-in details:

Join Zoom Meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84729676131
Meeting ID: 847 2967 6131

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