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Limit on toilet flushes adds to inmates' concerns about health, safety

Men in orange prison jumpsuits walk past two male guards.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
Inmates walk past correctional officers at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.

A few months ago, a variety of nonprofits – including the Asian Counseling and Referral Service – sent a letterto the superintendent of Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

Amidst the COVID pandemic, they were writing to complain about an unusual issue: toilet flushing.

The Washington state Department of Corrections had limited the number of times an individual was allowed to flush a toilet, and that was making some prisoners miserable. If a toilet is flushed more than three times within five minutes, it locks and can’t be flushed again for another half hour.

Marcus Reed has been incarcerated at Clallam Bay for about six years.

“With the toilet situation, like I said, nobody even thought about what it would be like for us here. ... We have to figure out a way to be OK,” Reed said in a recent interview.

Reed says tensions can quickly escalate when sharing such a small cell space with a roommate, and that the toilet situation in cells only makes things worse.

The Department of Corrections says it limited the number of flushes at certain facilities to reduce water usage as well as to deter the ability of individuals to flush large non-waste items such as blankets and clothing.

The complaints about a lack of cleanliness inside cells comes as COVID cases rise to their highest levels ever inside and as inmates complain about a lack of appropriate protocols.

Across Washington state prisons, more than 12,000 prisoners have been infected with the virus and 16 have died. Several staff members have also died from the disease.

Reed says he’s worried guards and other prison staff are continuing to expose those locked inside to the virus.

“The thing is that we can't bring it in. We don't go nowhere. We're here. We're here for years. We're not going anywhere. But yet, how are we getting sick?” Reed said.

The Department of Corrections says more than half the prison population has been vaccinated but only about 1,600 have been boosted. There are about 13,000 people incarcerated in state prisons. The department also says prison staff are tested at least once a week.

Lilly Ana Fowler covers social justice issues investigating inequality with an emphasis on labor and immigration. Story tips can be sent to