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caption: FILE: In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, staff members head past razor wire-topped fences and into a building hosting a University Behind Bars program at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash.
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FILE: In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, staff members head past razor wire-topped fences and into a building hosting a University Behind Bars program at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash.
Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

'The riot was the only way for us to be heard.' Monroe inmates speak out about their coronavirus fears

Tensions have been rising at a prison north of Seattle after six inmates were found to have coronavirus. On Wednesday evening, roughly 50 inmates refused to return to their cells and instead set off fire extinguishers.

Josh Vermaat, an inmate in the minimum security unit at Monroe Correction Complex, wrote to a friend this week that the prison was trying to move inmates to floors where there had previously been people sick with coronavirus. Six people at the Monroe prison have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the last week.

"We've been safe until now, but because of their lack of foresight and proper planning, now they need rooms for more vulnerable inmates and they want us to go into the 'hot zone' to make room for them," Vermaat wrote.

Vermaat said that staff tried to bribe them with food from McDonald's.

Vermaat and other inmates at the Monroe prison say they protested on Wednesday night because they want to be heard – and they need protection from the coronavirus – masks and distance between inmates in particular.

Nearby at the medium security portion of the complex, Amanda Kinsley's fiance wrote to her on Wednesday at 9:05 p.m. that inmates were on lockdown until further notice.

"They need to start giving us personal protective equipment so these guys chill out," he wrote to her.

Guards at the prison used pepper spray and sting balls that release light, noise and rubber pellets to get inmates to comply, according to a statement from the Department of Corrections.

Two hours later, Kinsley's fiance wrote again. "All I can say for sure is that we are not being given any personal protective equipment," he wrote. "We are not being allowed ample time to contact family. We're forced to walk and eat within a couple feet of each other, instead of six, and made to live with another man in the same cell."

He said they have asked for masks, gloves, bleach for personal use and have been denied.

Kinsey said that inmates share phones and that she heard from her fiance that no disinfecting was happening. He told her few guards wear masks and that the protest was the only way the Monroe inmates could speak out about their concerns.

"They're being denied their humans rights," Kinsley said. "I know a lot of people think, 'They did the crime, they do the time.' I agree with that and my fiance is in there. At the same time, this is a worldwide crisis and they're in a position where they can’t do anything."

In its statement, the Department of Corrections said it continues to protect inmates who are medically vulnerable, and that the department takes the safety of all staff and inmates seriously.

They will complete an internal investigation.

By Thursday morning, Columbia Legal Services had filed an emergency motion with the Washington Supreme Court on behalf of petitioners who were incarcerated in state prisons.

They asked the court to step in and immediately address what they called an inadequate Covid-19 response by the Department of Corrections.

"The DOC and Governor Jay Inslee have failed to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the vast majority of public health experts who agree that prisons and jails must reduce the number of people behind bars as an essential step in fighting COVID-19," Columbia Legal Services said in its statement.

In response to the motion, the court ordered Washington state to respond to the emergency motion by Friday morning.

On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair held a news conference.

Sinclair said the first case of coronavirus landed at Monroe last Sunday. The person was isolated and contact tracing was conducted. Six other people were placed in isolation as they awaited their test results.

At that time the Department of Corrections began to move people who were identified as vulnerable, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, Sinclair said. He said there was resistance to that, due to some people not being able to take all their belongings with them to their new location.

The next day, test results showed that those six inmates had Covid-19. At same time, another living unit was placed on quarantine. That quarantine was breached when more than 50 inmates went into the recreation yard.

"Today we continue our efforts to move people around within the system to give them a level of isolation so we can better protect them, but truly it takes everyone's help and cooperation," Sinclair said.

“Sometimes if people aren’t paying attention or not listening to what we’re trying to do for them, they perceive things that aren’t completely true,” Sinclair said.

He said the Department of Corrections was taking all the steps they possibly could, and they've started to consider releasing non-violent individuals who were within 60 days of release.

Vermaat, the inmate, wrote on Thursday that little is being done to keep inmates distanced safely and that inmates had been lied to about the number of staff and inmates who were sick. "Everything is shutdown right now and I'm not sure what is going to happen with it all today after last nights 'disturbance,'" he wrote. "It wasn't a riot, not even close."

He said the confirmed cases weren't being taken seriously, and the few measures implemented have been "half-assed."

"No one here wants violence, NO ONE, but at the same time you've got 400+ caged animals, if you will, who are now being backed into corners," Vermaat wrote. "We just want the best outcome for ourselves and even the staff, that is the truth."

Kinsley's fiance the next day told her that the only way to remedy the situation is to release non-violent offenders to their family, and limit cells to one person.

Through Kinsley, he called for disinfectant and masks, because the ones inmates attempted to fashion themselves were being taken away.

"I feel like being in jail in this global crisis is the worst thing ever," he told her by phone Thursday afternoon. "Not knowing if I or my inmates will even survive this, I feel like our life and health is not in our hands."

He continued: "The riot was the only way for us to be heard."

Austin Jenkins contributed reporting.