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Families of vulnerable inmates, concerned about COVID-19, call for prison reforms

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More than 400 people who are incarcerated in Washington prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. Two have died. With crowded conditions, family and advocates are pushing for change.

Dean Rhodes has been advocating for treatment of his wife’s numerous medical conditions ever since her incarceration at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor in 2016. He worries about her pain levels and says her condition has been getting steadily worse. She has lupus, an autoimmune disorder. And he says she recently came down with a fever.

“They’re not testing people in there, so there’s no way to really know,” Rhodes said. But he’s scared. “If she contracts the virus, with her ongoing internal organ failure, she will not survive. There’s just no way.”

Rhodes spoke at a press conference hosted by Columbia Legal Services, which narrowly lost a recent lawsuit before the state Supreme Court, demanding the release of all medically vulnerable inmates — as well as those older than 50 and anyone within 18 months of release.

The state has commuted the sentences of about 1,000 people in response to the pandemic, but advocates say it’s not enough. They say the new coronavirus has laid bare needed reforms, including better access to health care.  And they say more use of work release and home electronic monitoring to reduce the prison populations would lessen the risk of additional outbreaks of COVID-19.

The state Department of Corrections did not comment directly on individual cases, but said in an emailed statement that it takes its responsibility to protect the health and safety of those in its care very seriously. It said this in regard to COVID guidelines, developed in cooperation with the state Department of Health and the CDC. In regards to general family concerns, the email states the following:

“The Department has engaged in regular informational calls with the statewide and local family councils to hear concerns and provide information. Further, the Department has established specific protocols for the care of special populations.”

Along with fears about overcrowding and inadequate access to health care, advocates say the pandemic is shining a spotlight on ongoing issues and, in some cases, exacerbating them. There are complaints about aggressive treatment by guards, with no accountability.

Shandra Eknes says three officers at Stafford Creek Corrections Center beat up her brother, Harold Donald, June 22 after he briefly failed to put on a face mask. Eknes has pieced the story together from various witnesses, one of whom contacted her via Facebook. They said he had gotten up in the middle of the night to use a restroom, which was outside his cell. He was reprimanded and apologized and went back to bed. About 45 minutes later, the officers came to his cell and tackled him. Eknes says her brother still cannot see out of his left eye.

“I understand how important it is to wear masks during this crazy pandemic. But I also think that the egregious way that those three officers reacted is appalling," Eknes said. "My brother Herald is a human being just like you and me and he should be treated as such."  

The state Department of Corrections said in a written statement that the multiple-officer response resulted after Donald ignored a directive to return to his cell and struck a female officer in the head, knocking her to the ground. DOC says she "has still not been cleared to return to work."

"The Department reviewed the use of force that began after the physical altercation between Mr. Donald and the officer," the statement says. "It was determined to be necessary to secure the safety of the officers, Mr. Donald, and the other incarcerated individuals who had left their cells and were in proximity of the event."

The agency says Donald was evaluated and received treatment for his injuries.

The next day, he was transferred to Washington Corrections Center in Shelton and put into solitary confinement.

Eknes says he has been there for more than 50 days. He suffers from bipolar disorder and PTSD and his mental health is declining. She says he has not been treated for those conditions.

Eknes was joined at the press conference by attorney Chris Carney, who specializes in disability rights. He said he is investigating her brother’s case for a possible civil rights lawsuit.