On December 15, 2020, a Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) associate superintendent told families of WSP prisoners during a COVID-19 Local Family Council informational Microsoft Teams meeting that WSP leadership has not been authorized by the WA DOC headquarters Unified Command to make exceptions during the pandemic to policies that punish prisoners with major infractions if they refuse to work. (See WAC 137-25-030, Violation 557 – Refusing to participate in an available work, training, education, or other mandatory programming assignment.) At least some prisoners who are currently on quarantine lockdown at WSP are being asked to leave their cells and potentially expose themselves or others to COVID-19 by carrying out regular assigned job duties, to include serving food to other prisoners on quarantine lockdown. Reportedly, some prisoners are being asked to work far more hours per day than would be their usual assignment—up to ten hours a day in some cases.
When families expressed concern during the meeting about DOC knowingly creating new COVID vectors by having prisoners who are supposed to be in quarantine lockdown leave their quarantine cells to physically move around in areas that will create two-way exposure to other prisoners and staff members, the associate superintendent had the following things to say:
It is a policy. If they receive an assignment, and they refuse, it is policy. We rely on the incarcerated population to help us with that work. We are hemorrhaging staff. We are responsible to make sure that incarcerated individuals eat. How do you suggest that we make sure everyone eats? It is the expectation of anyone who supervises me for me to uphold policy. We are reliant on incarcerated individuals to help us work. There’s no two ways about it.
When asked how the prison staff members are faring during all of this, the associate superintendent conceded that he, all of his staff members, and all of the prisoners with whom they work feel tired, tense, and strained. Clearly, something about mass incarceration in Washington state and/or WA DOC emergency preparedness plans appears not to be working. As this blog post is being written, over fifty new positive COVID cases in WSP’s medium security quarantine lockdown units are sending prisoners packing up their boxes tonight to move to isolation units. Interestingly, in cases where a prisoner has tested positive and his cellie has not, WSP appears to be considering assigning new prisoners as roommates to the cellie who is left behind, knowing full well that the cellie has been living with someone who has now tested positive. The prison labor model may not be the only COVID vector WA DOC is knowingly creating.
Here is what Joey Pedersen, a prisoner who has spent over a month in quarantine lockdown at WSP, has to say about WA DOC’s labor model and COVID-19:
One of the many sordid aspects of the DOC’s response to COVID-19 is that DOC has, in numerous instances, infracted prisoners for refusing to work. In other words, while on the one hand claiming that the pandemic is so serious that visitation must be shut down for a year, outdoor exercise drastically curtailed, hundreds of prisoners tossed into solitary confinement (often without so much as a book to read), and entire units placed on lockdown so that inmates are afforded opportunities to shower and use the telephone just a couple times each week (if they’re lucky), prison officials are, on the other hand, requiring prisoners to come out of their cells and work around others, often for upwards of 10 hours each day. For sheer effrontery, it’s difficult to surpass this.
It’s worth noting a couple of things here. One of them is that it is probably true that the majority of prisoners are not concerned about COVID, believing that, while it is highly contagious and can–in relatively few cases–prove fatal, it is not as serious as the media have led us to believe, and the DOC’s response to the pandemic has been terribly inconsistent and has caused more harm than good. Not all prisoners feel this way, of course, but from all the information I have personally gathered this past year, it is probable that far more inmates believe this than disbelieve it.* The validity of such a position is not important here. What’s important is the frustration on the part of the prisoners who feel as though their captors have used the pandemic as a pretext for taking what few privileges and rights were left them in the first place.
Another thing that needs to be made clear is that what the DOC is perpetuating when it compels prisoners to work, using various means, is slavery. We can call it by whatever name we like. It’s slavery all the same, pretty dress or no. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution makes slavery in prisons legal, and the Washington State Legislature—through both inaction and the creation of RCW 72.60.110—has failed to establish a more humane and ethical standard for Washington state.
If as a society we are going to condone slavery, we should summon whatever decency may be left us and at least acknowledge that’s what we’re doing. We may say it’s justified because the slave robbed or killed someone, sold illicit substances, or whatever the case may be, but that slope is awfully slippery; whatever the case, we should call it what it is, just as the lawmakers who authorized it should have called it by its name.
What makes the present situation so troubling is that the DOC isn’t simply forcing inmates to work; it is forcing them to work in what prison officials claim is an environment so dangerous that entire units must be locked down. They are causing inmates to expose themselves to a virus that their official line claims is running rampant throughout the prison population. If the DOC is to maintain any credibility whatsoever with the public–something many of us do not believe possible–it must alter an unconscionable stance that simply cannot be defended.
If any good may come from this contretemps, let it be this: light is cast on the practice of modern American slavery, a vestige of a shameful past that our legislators should no longer be permitted to ignore.
* Viewed objectively, it is difficult to maintain the media line when one considers that, if COIVD were half as serious as it’s been made out to be, these facilities would long ago have been ravaged. They’re essentially sardine tins, and it’s not a question of “if” but “when” prisoners will get exposed to COVID. Nearly a year into the pandemic we have seen relatively few deaths among the prison population (low single digits), which data–even if accepted at face value–simply do not comport with the hysterical position of the media and government. This is why the majority of inmates are not overly concerned about COVID. This does not in any way minimize the fact that there is a highly contagious virus that can prove fatal in older and less healthy individuals. It’s simply a sober assessment of the data.