SEATTLE -- The Washington Supreme Court late Friday told Gov. Jay Inslee to protect the health of inmates in the state during the coronavirus outbreak and gave officials until Monday to detail the steps that have been taken.
Inmates at a Washington prison had asked the justices to order the release of some offenders after almost a dozen people there tested positive for the coronavirus, but state officials had said the process of letting inmates out will take time.
At least seven inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex — the second largest prison in the state — have the disease and officials are awaiting results on 54 other cases, according to Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair. Five workers at the facility also tested positive, he said.
The inmates filed a motion with the Supreme Court asking it to order Inslee and Sinclair to release inmates who are 60 years old or older; those with underlying health conditions and any who are close to their release date.
In its order Friday, the high court justices told Inslee and Sinclair “to take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety” of inmates and to report back in detail by noon Monday. The order also said the state had to submit a written plan to the court by April 17. There are about 16,000 inmates in Washington state correctional facilities.
More than 10,000 people in Washington state have tested positive for the disease and nearly 500 have died.
On Thursday, the inmates filed an emergency motion seeking immediate relief after a demonstration at the facility turned violent.
In response, Inslee and Sinclair held a press conference on Thursday, saying they would look into releasing some non-violent offenders who are within 60 days of their release date and will continue to screen everyone in the prison system and isolate those who have symptoms.
The state responded to the emergency motion early Friday, saying the court should stick with its previous schedule to hold oral arguments on the case on April 23.
The inmates’ request “for the hasty release of nearly two-thirds of the state’s prison population would not only endanger communities across the state, but also would threaten the health and safety of those individuals released without housing, employment, medical care, and other services critical to successful re-entry,” said the attorney general’s office.
The process takes “careful balancing of interests and exercise in discretion,” officials said.
The inmate petition said the outbreak in the Monroe facility, which can house up to 2,500 people, started in early April. They argue that there’s not enough space at the prison to properly quarantine or isolate people who are suspected to have coronavirus or test positive for the disease.
Robert Herzog, assistant secretary of prisons, told the court that their response to the outbreak followed recommendations outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When one inmate developed symptoms, he was sent to the hospital and tested positive on April 5, Herzog said. They placed everyone in his unit under quarantine and when the prisoner returned, he was placed in isolation, he said.
All staff on that unit were directed to wear N95 respirator masks and all inmates were given surgical masks, he said.
But Nick Straley, a lawyer for the inmates, said that wasn’t what happened.
“The guards have not been wearing masks and no masks have been provided,” he told The Associated Press.
Some of the inmates have already had their release plans approved by the corrections department, but had to wait for their actual release date before getting out, Straley said. The release plans include housing, work and other details, he said.
“They could be released immediately,” he said. “They have family members who are happy to take them right now but the DOC has refused to take that step.”