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Corrections Commitment to Public Safety Throughout COVID-19

April 10, 2020

By Rachel Noll

DOC Communications

Two corrections officers with medical masks and gloves on greet a woman at the entrance of a prison for screening.

Officer Bailey Hinz and Sergeant Francisco Garcia prepare to screen WCCW dentist Gayle Lundtvedt as part of Corrections’ new enhanced screening process. They’ll ask a series of screening questions and take Lundtvedt’s temperature before allowing her to enter. (Melissa Johnson, Washington Corrections Center for Women)

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The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) is privileged to have staff well trained in emergency management. During statewide and national emergencies, the DOC stands ready to respond internally to protect the health and safety of staff and the incarcerated, and externally to provide support to other state or federal agencies.

Steps Taken During COVID-19

Corrections began supporting the Department of Health (DOH) response to COVID-19 on February 9, 2020, by providing members of Corrections' Department Incident Management Team (DIMT) to help the statewide response. The department officially opened its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at headquarters in response to COVID-19 on March 2, 2020, whose members represent every division across the agency.

While the state is under a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Corrections remains open and operational as an essential business. The safety and well-being of the incarcerated, staff and public are the department’s top priorities.

Corrections has taken a number of steps to ensure the safety of those incarcerated in correctional facilities and work release, as well as those on community supervision. These steps include suspending visitation and other in-person programming to reduce outside exposure, encouraging pro-active precautions like hand-washing, extra cleaning and social distancing, and reducing the number of face-to-face contact visits community corrections officers have to make with those they supervise.

The department is also encouraging staff to stay home when sick, practice social distancing and telework wherever possible. Every staff member that needs to report in person for work receives a verbal and temperature health screening when they enter any correctional facility. The agency recently approved staff to wear expired N95 respirators (pdf). The department continues to monitor the situation to determine if additional steps are necessary as new guidance is made available.

To demonstrate the department's commitment to openness and transparency, Corrections has posted important information on the COVID-19 Information Center, including memos, resources and decision points.

Current Protocols Followed

Corrections’ Chief Medical Officer and her team have developed protocols (pdf) that follow recommendations for isolation and quarantine set forth by DOH and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which are updated as needed to reflect the latest guidance.

Employees who test positive for COVID-19 self-quarantine at home for at least 14 days. Corrections also works to identify and notify employees considered to have had close contact with a staff member with positive COVID-19 test results. Those determined to have been in close contact with the positive individual will be asked to self-quarantine at home for up to 14 days from the date of last contact with the employee who tested positive, following DOH guidelines.

If an incarcerated individual shows symptoms or tests positive, they will be isolated and treated. Those who have been in contact will be quarantined even if they are asymptomatic under the same guidelines followed under other quarantines, such as those that occur during outbreaks of the stomach flu.

Corrections Assistance in Statewide Response

In addition to the internal response, the DIMT provided logistics support to DOH along with the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and the Washington Military Department – Emergency Management Division with the statewide response to COVID-19. The support is possible because the Department of Corrections trains employees in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the national structure for emergency response enabling state and federal agencies that typically do not work together, to operate under the same structure and unified command during an emergency.

“Real world emergencies, whether it be a flood, hurricane, volcano or pandemic, provide the opportunity for our agency employees to hone their skills in emergency management and incident command,” said Emergency Operations Manager Greg Miller. “Assisting other agencies drastically increases our knowledge, skills and abilities to manage our own emergencies when they arise in the department. Above and beyond DIMT, the Department of Corrections staff statewide are always ready and willing to help out. These staff are doing great work in the offices, prisons and community during this time.”

The DIMT provided Command, Logistics and Planning staff to the Unified Command at the State Emergency Operations Center. DOC staff also provided communications support as the state stood up its Joint Information Center. Working together during an emergency allows each state agency to continue its operations, work together as a team and have a role in helping Washington to 'flatten the curve'.

Incarcerated individuals have also expressed a desire to help. Correctional Industries (CI) workers at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center have adapted their knowledge from the textile factory to produce protective gowns to respond to the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). CI workers across the state are also working to produce additional gowns, protective masks and face shields.

“Partnerships such as this show the department’s commitment to both our mission, ‘To improve public safety by positively changing lives’ as well as our vision, ‘Working together for safer communities,’” said Secretary Steve Sinclair. “Corrections is committed to working together with other state agencies to help support the best emergency response possible, as we know our role in creating safer communities extends beyond our commitment to operating a safe and humane corrections system. We value our partnership with others as we work to transform lives for a better Washington.”