Prisoners in Washington protest for survival

This Was No Coronavirus Prison Riot; Was Protest for Survival

MONROE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, Wash. state — On the evening of April 8, 2020 —  the worst year humanity has endured in over a century — I sat on the edge of my prison bunk and watched garbage flutter from above my cell to the first-tier floor. 

“Wi-Fi or die!” rang through the air as a thunderous cacophony of nearly 400 bellowing voices chanted in unison, “Wi-Fi or die! Wi-Fi or die! Wi-Fi or die!” 

Sandal-clad feet stomped on cement floors, an ominous sound that was amplified by the six-by-nine-foot cages we’re mandated to call home. My neighbors vigorously shook, rattled and banged on their bars, even as they remained locked behind them. TVs sitting atop tiny desks in equally tiny cells displayed aerial footage of the recreation yard in our cousin prison, the Minimum-Security Unit (MSU), on this sprawling complex adorned with barbed wire and lookout towers. 

“Riot in the Monroe Correctional Complex over COVID-19,” the headline read. 

The screens showed dozens of shirtless, tattooed prisoners kneeling around the baseball diamond with their wrists zip-tied behind their backs. Guards were ominously looming over them with objects resembling shotguns. I had never seen those weapons before. They usually just carry pepper spray.

For the last year I’ve struggled to understand why incarcerated lives seem to matter less than others, like yours

The incident made national headlines as the first prison uprising in the country over coronavirus. More than 100 of my neighbors were involved. It subsequently changed the way the Washington Department of Corrections handled the pandemic, while propelling the national conversation about coronavirus in prisons to the nation’s front pages just long enough for it to be politicized. 

Conservative pundits and politicians complained as rounds of early releases commenced to thin out the incarcerated population. When a guard who had been present on April 8 died from the virus, local media outlets placed blame on the imprisoned participants. What they didn’t, and still haven’t, deemed worthy of reporting are any accounts that didn’t come from the Department of Corrections (DOC), including the most important detail of all: What took place wasn’t a riot. It was a peaceful protest by individuals whose lives were jeopardized by their captors. That’s the story you’re about to read.

When COVID Hit

Late in 2019, there was little-to-no talk within my community of coronavirus. Some of my incarcerated neighbors mentioned it in passing, but most assumed it would fade faster than the Swine and Bird Flus of the past two decades.

My television, however, remained perpetually on world news stations as I followed the story, attempting to glean the truth of what was unfolding amid a sea of speculation and political rhetoric. In late September, I sent a message to my wife via JPay (an email-like service offered to Washington state prisoners), telling her I had a bad feeling about it all. She agreed.

When the first US case was reported on Jan. 25, 2020 in Everett, Wash. — a mere half-hour from the Monroe Correctional Complex (or  MCC) — chatter and whispers about the deadly virus became the talk of my temporary, concrete home. 

“Coronavirus!” was shouted out every time coughing arose in the living-units. Back then, it was followed by laughter. Not because we thought there was anything funny about Covid-19 — showing fear in prison is unacceptable, under any circumstance.

Then an outbreak struck a nursing-home in Kirkland — just 24 minutes from us. It brought death to dozens. While the frequency of jokes didn’t diminish, they began to ring hollow because there was less conviction behind them. 

Visitation and all programs — educational, religious or otherwise — were suspended to minimize the inflow of traffic from outside. Before long, more TVs in my unit were tuned into the news as the virus rapidly spread nationwide, almost as if it were a plague pouring down from the heavens. Daily death-tolls were announced. Though nobody wanted to say it, we all knew it was coming for us. We knew what would happen when it did.

MCC is over 100 years old, making it the second oldest prison in Washington state. The complex sits atop a hill in the middle of this town of about 20,000, a number that includes me and my roughly 2,399 or so incarcerated neighbors. It’s composed of four facilities: The Minimum-Security Unit, the Special Offender Unit, Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) and the Washington State Reformatory (WSR). 

I’m housed in WSR, which itself contains four units, each housing roughly 200 residents. Rows of 40 cells are stacked four-tiers-high.  Poor ventilation and doors constructed from bars, rather than the protective slabs of steel found in newer prisons, cause us to perpetually breathe the same recycled air. Combined with our close quarters, we’re housed in an incubator of viruses, which makes us sitting ducks for a deadly, once-in-a-century virus.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, I woke to an unnatural silence in my unit. We were on full lockdown, which means exactly what it sounds like: No leaving our cells. So I made a cup of lukewarm coffee and waited for my neighbors to finally start their daily conversations and banter. Around noon we learned a guard who worked in our unit had tested positive. Half of our prison, which houses 800 residents, was now being forced to quarantine for 14 days. The quarantine started the moment he clocked out of his last covid-ridden shift.  For those two long weeks, we were allotted less time to shower. They even gave us less time for phone calls than prisoners on disciplinary lockdowns.

Still, the jokes continued, along with daily cell-front temperature checks by a nurse in green scrubs. My television remained on the news as cruise ships sailed off the coast of Florida with bodies in their freezers, and tents were erected in New York hospital parking-lots to store the overflow of the dead.

When Your Doctor is a Fraud

A few months earlier, I learned the medical director at MCC was fired after several incarcerated patients died in her care. One died of a respiratory complication, for which he had repeatedly sought help only to be told to stop making himself sick. A severely mentally ill prisoner, one who had lodged a pencil into his bladder via his urethra, was denied treatment until he went into septic shock. It was later revealed  the Department of Corrections hired the medical director despite her not being board certified or having completed an approved residency.

On day 10, the quarantine unexpectedly ended. Two days later, the other half of WSR entered into its own quarantine after another guard tested positive. Staff members, sensing an impending mandate to wear masks, protested to their union against the prospect of having to do what local, state and federal public health officials were advising, even as we witnessed the vast majority of guards spending their time standing elbow-to-elbow, laughing and claiming coronavirus was less deadly than the seasonal flu.

Meanwhile, prisoners who reported symptoms were hauled off to E-Unit in the TRU, which had only been used in the past decade to train staffers. They were locked down 24-hours-a-day and only allowed showers every seven days. Portable phone stations were wheeled to cell-fronts once a week so they could finally inform loved ones of their well-being (or lack thereof). The water coming from the sinks was abnormally brown , yet they had no choice but to drink it or succumb to death. Though nobody was testing positive, they weren’t released back into the population until they had gone 14 days without symptoms — sometimes longer.

In early April an outbreak occurred in the Minimum-Security Unit. Infected residents were placed in E-Unit with those from the other three facilities, even those who had been testing negative. A nurse from an outside hospital came in to assist in temperature checks and had an anxiety attack due to the unsafe conditions. Because I had been reporting on the DOC’s pandemic response, I interviewed those returning from isolation. 

A study came out of an Ohio prison stating that more than half of the population tested positive for coronavirus, yet only a small portion of them were symptomatic. These numbers were used by media outlets with agendas on both sides of the political spectrum to make cases for why we should, or shouldn’t, end nationwide lockdowns.

I knew they weren’t to be trusted. The number of symptomatic incarcerated persons was likely much higher than anybody could have ascertained, as prisoners were being de-incentivized to report symptoms.

I was on the phone with my wife late in the afternoon of April 8 when a fire alarm sounded in my unit, which was followed by a guard yelling orders over the loudspeaker for everybody to lockdown immediately. Nobody in WSR knew what was unfolding in the Minimum-Security Unit. 

Didn’t Feel Like a Riot to Us

“Turn on the news! Right now!” echoed through our unit. 

That’s when we saw it. We would later learn healthy MSU residents were ordered to enter from the yard into quarantine with those who were testing positive. When they refused, staffers attempted to bribe them with items from McDonalds. They accepted the food and then threw it into the dirt. That’s when guards shot them with nonlethal projectiles. 

While this was happening, those inside their building pulled fire alarms and set off fire extinguishers. Word traveled to local news outlets, likely via prisoner’s families. Before long helicopters were circling the complex. Our Wi-Fi was, I believe, cut to keep us from sending messages to anybody who might speak to the media. That’s when the thunder of feet and chants erupted from my neighbors’ cells in WSR.

After the demonstration in MSU, staff were finally mandated to wear masks, but it was too late. They had already infected our community. Some still refused to adhere to the order. One maskless guard informed me he was “just trying to spread the love,” while another said he was hoping to get suspended so he could have some time off work.

Stations containing alcohol-based hand sanitizer were placed in the units in accordance with guidance issued by the Center for Disease Control. Within hours two of my neighbors had filtered out the methanol and drank it. Instead of disciplining them, administrators removed the station the next morning, stating, “The bar is closed.” 

It didn’t matter that there were 788 who hadn’t drunk it, because they had known in advance it was going to happen, even sending officials a memo warning of the dangers in doing so.
Measures were immediately implemented that limited the number of people allowed in our recreational areas, confining the population almost exclusively to our living-units.

This made it impossible to socially distance — as we were now crowded into small areas — and increased the chances we would get sick. Every guideline seemed to be interpreted in whatever way put us at the most risk or made our living conditions the least comfortable. The commanding officers struggled to convince us it wasn’t done vindictively in the wake of the protest.

Prisoners were issued masks as well, and we were mandated to wear them whenever outside of our cells. Punishments were imposed on any who mirrored guards by wearing them around their chins. Word went out amongst the incarcerated that if people got sick, they’d better hide their symptoms to keep the units from being locked down. The majority of those around me claimed they would just stay in their cells. Those less informed about how their immune systems worked planned to go to the gym and “sweat it out.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) ordered the release of certain prisoners who were set to get out within the next couple of months anyway. Reporters on Fox News displayed outrage, as if releasing felons a month early would contribute to the disintegration of society. The inflow of new people from county jails immediately refilled their bunks, so the order did nothing to thin out the population at the time.

Some of my neighbors were writing about the COVID experience in prison as well, but thought it unethical to publish anything that might cause mass testing and therefore get those who were potentially sick taken to segregation. I disagreed, feeling it was important to contribute eyewitness accounts that provided the transparency that DOC was not giving. This proved, at times, to be difficult, as some outlets — even those masquerading as social-justice-oriented — didn’t want to print anything that wasn’t corroborated by the prison administration. 

It Spread Like Wildfire

Programs remained canceled, and we spent most of 2020 locked in cells that felt like gas chambers, inhaling the breaths of our neighbors even when lying in our beds. Then, the day after Christmas, somebody in WSR lost his sense of smell. 320 people housed in units were tested, with only two coming back positive.

A week later, 145 of them tested positive and were hauled off to segregation. Our gymnasium was converted into a medical wing to house the overflow of the infected. Positive tests continued to come back by the dozens, and prisoners were hauled off daily to the gym and segregation. Soon tents were erected in the recreation yard in the Twin Rivers Unit, which were used as hospitals as well.

In WSR’s D-Unit all but seven of 160 residents were infected in about a month’s time. Sidney Potts was 70 years old and had a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections because of how it was handling his health problems.

He wrote a letter to his family, stating that if he died, it was because of DOC’s negligence. On Jan, 6, he had a heart attack that he may have survived had he not been forced to live in D-Unit and therefore forcefully infected with Covid-19. He passed away at around 6:30 A.M.

On Feb, 3, I was informed I tested positive, along with about 70 of my neighbors. We were told if we didn’t have symptoms, we would be taken to the gym, where we would have TVs, showers and unlimited access to phones.

If, however, we had symptoms, we would be taken to segregation. Then they asked us each individually if we had symptoms, and though most of us did, we told them, “No.” A plastic tent was mounted to a wall in the gym to protect the guards from us. We barely saw them for the two weeks we were there. When we returned to the unit, my neighbor had a heart attack and was rushed to an outside hospital, where they informed him coronavirus damaged his heart and he would need to be “opened up” so they could examine it.

Many of my neighbors and I have had the same chest pains and lightheadedness as him, but we knew if we report it, we’ll be taken to the hole, where we could die and nobody would even know for hours.

A while back it was reported that one in five of all coronavirus-related deaths were occurring in long-term-care-facilities. This number was inaccurate, as it hadn’t accounted for prisons, which are equally as vulnerable as nursing homes and the like to mass infection.

Some people don’t believe they should be categorized as such because it would put us on the priority list for vaccination. This stems from a belief that we deserve less protection because we committed crimes and got caught. But nowhere in my sentencing paperwork does it state  deadly viruses are a part of my punishment, let alone inadequate health care.

So for the last year I’ve struggled to understand why incarcerated lives seem to matter less than others, like yours. 

Michael J. Moore is a writer and journalist.  He's received awards for his work and been highlighted on television. He's written for various anthologies, journals, newspapers (including HuffPost) and magazines, and has been adapted for theater. His full bio is here.

Michael J. Moore is a writer and journalist.  He's received awards for his work and been highlighted on television. He's written for various anthologies, journals, newspapers (including HuffPost) and magazines, and has been adapted for theater. His full bio is here.

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