The Washington State Reformatory (WSR), where I’ve been incarcerated for the past three years, is a prison unit within the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC). It sits atop a hill in the middle of Monroe, a city 40 minutes northeast of Seattle. Like every other prison in the country, it contains a community almost exclusively made up of the most marginalized people.
Though Black, Latinx and Indigenous people collectively make up around one-third of the country, we account for more than 50 percent of the country’s incarcerated; and the vast majority of incarcerated white people are more acquainted with poverty and mental illness than what we think of as “privilege.”
Though it’s well documented that environmental issues like air pollution and climate change disproportionately affect marginalized communities, what’s seldom noted is how these ill effects are accelerated in places like WSR. Or the role of these factors in putting us at a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
When an outbreak began in our facility over the holidays, nearly 300 prisoners were infected in less than two weeks. “It’s the ventilation,” said Travis, a 29-year-old veteran and certified heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technician. “I’ve been here for years and never even seen them change the air filters in the units.”
The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) told Filter that the air filters are currently being changed on a quarterly basis. As of publication time, MCC reported 525 current cases of COVID and 160 new cases within the past month, though those numbers are MCC-wide and a breakdown of cases by specific prison unit, such as WSR, was not available.
When COVID guidelines were issued in the free world, confining people to their houses and thinning the crowds in public spaces, the DOC adopted a similar model. Visitation and all programming in WSR—religious, educational or otherwise—were suspended in order to limit the inflow of potential carriers from outside. Numbers of incarcerated individuals permitted in the gym, recreation yard and activity day rooms were reduced.
At first glance, these measures seemed reasonable. But it soon became clear that they had merely restricted the incarcerated population (which was still swelling from transfers from other prisons), almost exclusively to the oldest, most high-risk parts of the facility: the living units.
Vicente, a Mexican immigrant, understands that the only people who could be bringing COVID into our home are the prison staff. He wishes we had doors, rather than bars; when staff pass his cell, they’re often so close he can smell their breath. “I tried to move somewhere different,” he said, “where they’re not always passing by, but they won’t let me.”
“What really worries me is that people might not know they got it, and then they’ll just spread it more.”
Dominique, a 31-year-old Black man, has become increasingly convinced that everybody here will soon have the virus. “What really worries me is that people might not know they got it, and then they’ll just spread it more,” he said. “And the old people who catch it might not be healthy enough to withstand it.”
On January 6, Sidney Potts passed away from a heart attack, as his family and the DOC confirmed to Filter. His preexisting health conditions were exacerbated by the fact that he became infected with COVID-19. Potts, a 70-year-old Indigenous man, had been incarcerated on drug charges. His living-unit housed 160 residents when the outbreak began; within roughly a month, all had been moved to quarantine quarters because they’d tested positive for the virus. Potts had sued the DOC over their handling of his health problems. But they kept him in an environment where he had zero chance of avoiding contraction, rather than moving him somewhere secluded and safe.
Brooks spent 13 years as a police officer prior to his incarceration. These days, he assists those lobbying for various types of reform, and observes the unconstitutional conditions into which he used to usher others. “We’re confined in a very old building that in any other circumstances would have been condemned decades ago, and doesn’t even meet modern prison standards,” he said. “Our drains constantly stink, and DOC claims they can’t smell it, but we clearly can. It’s raw sewage.”
WSR is over 100 years old, making it the second-oldest prison in the state. Constructed from brick and steel, it is a monument to outdated architecture, meant to create living conditions that strip incarcerated individuals of their humanity and provide the minimum amount of comfort required by law.
Six-by-nine-foot cells are stacked four tiers high, and positioned about a foot apart from each other. Poor ventilation and air-conditioning ensure that in the summer it’s often hotter inside the building than outside, while the odor of rotting rodents rises from the ancient plumbing. The winters are unbearably cold, and even before the current pandemic, seasonal viruses spread like spilled water.
Travis recalled one summer when it grew so hot that he and his cellmate took shifts sleeping on the cement floor because it was the only thing that cooled them down. “It’s hard because it dominates all parts of your life,” he said. “It’s either too hot to sleep, or too cold to even read a book outside of your blanket.”
“We’re in an open-bar environment. We don’t even have access to bleach.”
“We’re in an open-bar environment,” Brooks added. “And the CDC set a six-foot standard, but cells here are less than 18 inches apart. We don’t even have access to bleach. I work as a janitor in the unit, and when I ask for it, they treat me like I have some kind of ulterior motive.”
The DOC told Filter that people incarcerated in the complex have access to hand sanitizer “at supervised locations,” and are tested for COVID “if they are identified as part of contact tracing, self-identify symptoms and/or if they are identified by staff as being symptomatic.” My neighbors and I, however, have not had access to this purportedly available hand sanitizer since July 2020; it was removed within a few hours of being introduced so that people would not drink it. Spray bottles were taken away, although soap has been provided to us individually.
Regardless of one’s political beliefs about “crime and punishment,” it’s nothing short of willful ignorance to look at the racial and economic disparities in US prisons and not conclude that the criminal justice system is every bit as effective at capturing and dehumanizing the disenfranchised as the Confederate slave market once was.
And though we haven’t yet as a nation collectively recognized that a modern-day slave trade is an unacceptable response to crime, neither my nor my neighbors’ sentencing paperwork mandates that we be disproportionately exposed to extreme conditions—including deadly viruses.
This article has been updated with additional context about the death of Sidney Potts, as well as access to hand sanitizer and soap within Washington State Reformatory.
Photograph of an Monroe Correctional Complex cell via Washington State Department of Corrections