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Inmates asked to sign waiver freeing state prison of liability amid Covid outbreak

caption: Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington.
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Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington.
KUOW Photo/Patricia Murphy

Hundreds of people at Stafford Creek Corrections Center— more than a quarter of those incarcerated, and dozens of staff — have tested positive for the coronavirus in the last month.

In all, 568 inmates and 41 staff at Stafford Creek, located about 8 miles southwest of Aberdeen, have tested positive. The next biggest outbreak is at the Monroe Correctional Complex, with 28 inmates and 33 staff.

A Stafford Creek inmate said the prison administration should have done more to keep the outbreak from spreading. But the prison has asked inmates to sign waivers holding the prison and its employees harmless if they get Covid.

Lawrence Jenkins, a Stafford Creek inmate, said, even after several people had tested positive, units with and without Covid cases had to mingle in outdoor hallways waiting for food and medicine.

“It immediately alarmed me,” Jenkins said. “Like, you know, if there’s positive cases, why are they moving us around, herding us around like this, packing us in these lines to go into the chow hall, to go to the medication line?”

A Department of Corrections spokesperson confirmed in an email the accuracy of Jenkins' account, but said, “Given that transmission of COVID outdoors is minimal, there were no COVID cases that were attributed to the brief interactions that occurred.”

Jenkins said, even after units stopped mingling, corrections officers went back and forth between units for tasks like food drop-offs.

The corrections department spokesperson said in an email, “Our funded staffing model requires some officer positions to work multiple units. Our staff is provided appropriate PPE to perform their work safely and prevent the spread of the virus.”

The spokesperson also said there is one person at the prison charged with making sure all corrections officers wear their masks correctly at all times all over the prison, among other duties.

Jenkins said the prison has been slow to deliver the results of Covid tests. He said he was tested for Covid on May 10 and not told until May 26 that he’d tested positive.

“So they went two whole weeks without telling me, even notifying me, that I was positive for Covid,” he said.

The corrections department spokesperson said outside labs have sometimes been slow to return the results of PCR tests, but the prison follows up with the lab if there’s an unusual delay and always gives test results to inmates as soon as they’re available.

In recent weeks, the prison has started asking inmates to sign waivers agreeing to hold the prison and its employees harmless if they get Covid.

Prison officials have been offering inmates with preexisting conditions a choice: They can go to solitary confinement, also known as “the hole,” or they can agree to hold prison officials harmless if they get Covid or long-haul Covid, or if they die.

Jenkins wasn’t one of those asked to sign the waiver, but he obtained a copy from a fellow inmate and read it over the phone.

“I refuse this treatment or procedure: individual single-cell Covid-19 quarantine during an outbreak in my living unit,” he read. Jenkins said the form then enumerates all the bad things that can happen to someone who gets Covid: lung damage, ongoing brain fog and fatigue, death, etc.

The waiver adds that the prison can’t guarantee that even those in solitary confinement won’t get Covid.

Jenkins said inmates weren’t offered legal representation before being asked to sign these waivers.

A corrections spokesperson said in an email that the waivers were “for those individuals who were unwilling to participate in testing, treatment, isolation and quarantine to help reduce risk, liability and promote health among willing participants.”

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