Columbia Legal Service – POLICY REFORM

OVERVIEW

On January 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Washington State Department of Health announced the first case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Washington State. Many agencies, hospitals, direct service providers, and advocates are taking vital steps to address this pandemic, but some communities aren’t receiving adequate or equitable attention. When it comes to addressing this public health crisis, we are all only as healthy as the most vulnerable in our community.  

Columbia Legal Services is working closely with the communities we serve and our allies to help mitigate the impacts facing communities at most risk during the current COVID-19 outbreak. We’re calling on local and state leaders and the Department of Corrections (DOC) to take swift and decisive action to protect the public health of all Washingtonians, including people who are incarcerated or detained, farm workers, and the 30,000 largely Mexican H-2A workers across our state. If we don’t take bold, proactive action now to reduce the threat of COVID-19 in jails, state prisons, detention centers, and the farm worker community, we put an already vulnerable population in danger and the broader public at further risk. 

This webpage includes many COVID-19 resources, including joint letters to Governor Jay Inslee and the DOC, media releases and coverage, and letters that we have signed onto with allies and coalitions across Washington and the nation. We’ll update this page regularly.

COVID-19 Prison Lawsuit FAQs

TEAM

Kimberly Aleman
Kimberly Aleman
Legal Assistant
Nick Allen
Nick Allen
Deputy Director of Advocacy
Travis Andrews
Travis Andrews
Director of Equity and Community Engagement
Alex Bergstrom
Alex Bergstrom
Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist
Ali Bilow
Ali Bilow
Attorney
Julia Bladin
Julia Bladin
Legal Assistant
Cheli Bueno
Cheli Bueno
Legal Assistant
Elvia Bueno
Elvia Bueno
Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist
Janet Chung
Janet Chung
Advocacy Director
Amy Crewdson
Amy Crewdson
Attorney
Merf Ehman
Merf Ehman
Executive Director
Diana Garcia
Diana Garcia
Assistant Deputy Director of Advocacy
Antonio Ginatta
Antonio Ginatta
Policy Director
Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez
Attorney
Alfredo Gonzalez Benitez
Alfredo Gonzalez Benitez
Attorney
Kim Gunning
Kim Gunning
Attorney
Adriana Hernandez
Adriana Hernandez
Communication Coordinator
Lori Isley
Lori Isley
Attorney
Maureen Janega
Maureen Janega
Paralegal
Bonnie Linville
Bonnie Linville
Attorney
Charlie McAteer
Charlie McAteer
Communications Director
Joe Morrison
Joe Morrison
Attorney
Sarah Nagy
Sarah Nagy
Attorney
Rachael Pashkowski
Rachael Pashkowski
Paralegal
Andrea Schmitt
Andrea Schmitt
Attorney
Cheryl Seelhoff
Cheryl Seelhoff
Legal Assistant
Laurel Simonson
Laurel Simonson
Attorney
Brandy Sincyr
Brandy Sincyr
Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist
Nick Straley
Nick Straley
Assistant Deputy Director of Advocacy
Xaxira Velasco Ponce De Leon
Xaxira Velasco Ponce De Leon
Attorney
Hannah Woerner
Hannah Woerner
Attorney

VIDEOS

State Ordered to Respond to Emergency Request Filed by Petitioners Demanding State Take Immediate Steps to Address the COVID-19 Outbreak at Monroe Correctional Complex

Criminal Justice Reform | Impact Litigation | Media Release
'State Ordered to Respond to Emergency Request Filed by Petitioners Demanding State Take Immediate Steps to Address the COVID-19 Outbreak at Monroe Correctional Complex'

On behalf of Petitioners who are incarcerated in state prisons, Columbia Legal Services filed an emergency motion this morning with the Washington Supreme Court asking the Court to step in immediately to address the Washington State Department of Corrections’ (DOC) inadequate COVID-19 response. The DOC and Governor Jay Inslee have failed to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the vast majority of public health experts who agree that prisons and jails must reduce the number of people behind bars as an essential step in fighting COVID-19. In a response letter, the Court ordered the State to answer the emergency motion by 9:00 am on Friday. The petitioners must respond to the state’s answer by noon on Friday.

Instead, as described in a brief CLS filed on Monday, the Governor and the Secretary of DOC have refused to release a single person, even though they have the current authority to begin releasing people, particularly people most vulnerable to COVID-19. Now there has been an inevitable outbreak at the Minimum Security Unit (MSU) at the Monroe Correctional Center (MCC). Two declarations filed along with today’s motion (by Petitioner Terry Kill and CLS staff Julia Bladin) provide updated information from people inside MSU-MCC.

“Prior to and throughout this COVID-19 crisis families have pleaded with DOC, the legislature, and the Governor to take a proactive stand with regard to the health and well-being of our loved ones inside. For years we have gone to the legislature for changes in law to secure decarcerating our prison system, with very little relief,” said Suzanne Cook, SFC Family Co-Chair and whose husband is being held at MSU and MCC. “Now that this pandemic has arrived the glaring missteps and attitude have revealed nothing more than business as usual. Prisoners and families are experiencing a lot of fear as access and content of communication is being thwarted by DOC. We are hopeful that the actions by the court will provide the relief valve needed to secure the health and lives of those inside.”

“Our minimum security inmate deaths are preventable,” said Twyla Kill, wife of Petitioner Terry Kill, who has been working to mobilize families of people with family inside to stand up for them. “We demand that Inslee and Sinclair act now to save lives. These men are low risk and are already about to get out.”

“This unfortunate, but completely foreseeable, situation is a direct result of the failure of DOC to take action sooner, even though people who are incarcerated in state prisons, their family members, and advocates have sounded the alarm for weeks,” said Attorney Nick Straley, of Columbia Legal Services, counsel for Petitioners. “Even the Trump Administration has begun taking steps to reduce the number of people in the federal prison system. For some reason, the Washington State Department of Corrections and the Governor refuse to do so.”

People have become sick and COVID-19 is spreading throughout the unit that houses more than 400 people, who are classified as the lowest, minimum risk. One of the people infected as a result of DOC’s failures is 68 years old. This person and many others could have been released weeks ago without endangering public safety and with appropriate supports in place. That did not occur even in the face of many different requests, including community letters and a Petition to the State Supreme Court, CLS filed on March 24.

“Now because the DOC and the Governor have failed in their duties to protect people living behind bars, we will be asking the Washington State Supreme Court to step in today and order them to do so,” Straley added. “We will be asking the Court to appoint a special master to ensure that the Department of Corrections begins to take appropriate steps to address the COVID-19 outbreak, order the State to protect the people under its care, and release people in order to mitigate the harms that COVID-19 will continue to cause inside Washington’s prisons. Nationally recognized correctional and public health experts, including a former head of the Washington Department of Corrections, all agree that releasing people from prison is an essential step in any effort to defeat the coronavirus behind bars.”

This emergency request is in addition to the requests that CLS has made on behalf of its clients and the thousands of other people currently living behind bars in Washington, which are currently scheduled to be heard by the Court on April 23. The emergency currently spiraling out of control at Monroe Correctional Complex requires that the Court step in even sooner than the current expedited schedule will allow.

Media Contacts

Nick Straley, CLS Attorney
206-650-7129, nick.straley@columbialegal.org   

Charlie McAteer, CLS Communications Director
917-696-1321, charlie.mcateer@columbialegal.org

LEGAL DOCUMENTS