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Gov. Inslee signs orders to reduce prison population in response to COVID-19

Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
In this Jan. 28, 2016, file photo, a man does maintenance work between razor wire-topped fences at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash.

The state is taking steps to reduce Washington's prison population to stop the spread of COVID-19. Gov. Jay Inslee has issued a new emergency proclamation and an order commuting the sentences of some nonviolent inmates. 

Eleven inmates so far have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections. All of them are from the Monroe Correctional Center, although one of the inmates appears to have gotten sick while in a hospital outside the prison for unrelated reasons. There have been 12 staff across various facilities who also have reported positive coronavirus tests.

Inslee's latest orders come as the state faces mounting pressure to stop the spread of the virus in prisons.

Critics, including some in law enforcement, say releasing inmates early is a threat to pubic safety. But advocates for incarerated people say the state's current release plan won't meaningfully reduce the prison population enough to protect vulnerable inmates.

KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick spoke with producer Simone Alicea, who has been following this issue. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below, which has been edited for clarity.

KIRSTEN KENDRICK: Simone, whose sentences are being commuted here?

SIMONE ALICEA: So the commutation applies to people who have not been convicted of violent offenses or sex offenses and who have an earned release date on or before June 29. So these are nonviolent offenders who are already within a couple of months of release. And I should say, in addition to the commutation, Inslee also expanded the authority to do other kinds of early release.

KIRSTEN: So how many people will be affected by this?

SIMONE: We don't have an exact number. I have reached out to the Department of Corrections, but haven't heard back yet. Earlier this week, the governor and Secretary of Corrections Stephen Sinclair said the plan is to release between 600 and 950 inmates total. So for context, there are more than 16,000 people in the prisons themselves. Those prisons are over capacity and nearly 19,000 total in DOC custody, which includes folks on work release, for example. 

KIRSTEN: So let's step back and talk about what led to this action from the governor. 

SIMONE: Yeah. So incarcerated individuals and advocates have been sounding the alarm over COVID-19 in the prisons pretty much since the beginning, since this has gone on in Washington. And release has also been an ask since then.

You know, when I'm talking to guys inside, they're telling me social distancing is not really possible. They're worried about hygiene. And there are people who have medical conditions who are worried about their exposure.

You know, there has been a lawsuit against the state over this. There wasthe disturbance at the prison in Monroe last week. And then the Supreme Court order calling on the state to take "all necessary steps" to reduce the spread of the virus. That's what these proclamations are the result of.  We're seeing the details trickling in about the release plan, specifically. 

KIRSTEN: Have state officials addressed the public safety concerns around releasing inmates?

SIMONE: I do think officials are trying to strike a balance here. Inslee told reporters yesterday that, you know, they're trying to make sure people have release plans and that they can notify victims, but they're also working really quickly here. And I think there are a lot of questions that remain to be answered. 

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.