Inland Journal, March 19, 2020: Coronavirus, WA Legislature, Jails, Center For Justice Closes

Mar 19, 2020

The Bail Project and other Spokane social justice groups have written a letter, asking local leaders to prevent the spread of infection in the county jail.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Today on Inland Journal and the Inland Journal podcast, the coronavirus hijacked the Washington legislative session during its last couple of weeks. Lawmakers worked to approve a $200 million package aimed at helping people affected by Covid-19.

We’ll talk with two Spokane area legislators about that and other accomplishments from the session. Coronavirus could be a big issue in correctional facilities.

We’ll hear about the closure of Spokane’s non-profit legal clinic, the Center for Justice. Those stories and more on Inland Journal.

Today on Inland Journal and the Inland Journal podcast, ripples from the coronavirus are affecting every part of our lives. In this program, we’ll hear worries about how the virus is affecting people in jails and prisons. How can prison authorities ensure inmates have the physical space they need to stay healthy? We’ll also talk about the impending closing of a non-profit legal clinic in Spokane that represents poor people.

First, we’re a week out from the end of the Washington legislative session. It was the even year session, which means it was short, only 60 days. But what a 60 days?

Rep. Marcus Riccelli [D-Spokane] starts on a long list of accomplishments.

“We made progress on housing and homelessness, child care and health care. We made significant investments, $160 million for shelter needs and new affordable housing programs. $153 million to increase access to child care for working families," Riccelli said.

Jenny Graham: “I have a whole list of really good bipartisan bills that passed," said Rep. Jenny Graham [R-Spokane], Riccelli's colleague in the House.

“The capital and transportation budgets. There have been issues with property taxes and landlord-tenant issues. Some legislation that, one of them creates a grant program for small rural school districts to modernize facilities."

But one issue in the last few weeks demanded legislators’ attention: COVID-19. Riccelli says one byproduct of that is that it required lawmakers to re-route spending they’d planned for other things.

“I think there was an understanding that our current budget, which was a really great supplemental budget, that we had to pull back a little bit. That changed pretty quickly, drawing from the rainy day fund to begin to combat some of the issues we were seeing. So, buckets for expenditures for the Department of Health, local public health departments for testing, for hospital surge capacity and housing became a priority. I think we did the responsible thing," Riccelli said.

"We had a higher ending fund balance than we had expected because we believe there will be significant costs to this. We transferred the money from the budget stabilization account, which initially was $50 million, then was up to $100 million and very quickly was up to $200 million, which I think, looking now, will just be a dent in what we’ll end up spending on this,” he said.

As lawmakers turned their attention to addressing COVID-19, they had not only the ticking clock of the 60-day session in mind, but something else as well.

“The capitol is a petri dish, so there were definite concerns as far as, we have some members that were at risk, older or have some health issues, just like the general public, and all of us have families at home that were facing similar risks. We have families that own businesses, so we’re not different than anybody else that is experiencing all of the things that this virus is bringing out, whether it be medical concerns or economic concerns," Graham said.

"We obviously keep our eye on the news and when we started hearing about cases where individuals were getting sick and passing away, that’s something that for sure will get your attention. Number one, there’s the human loss that is associated with that and, of course, we’re going to want to try to do everything we can to mitigate that and make it so that we don’t have as many people contracting this and giving to other people that could be in real trouble if they were to get infected by this disease," she said.

Riccelli says the $200 million appropriated, about $75 million of which was distributed Wednesday, covers a wide range of needs.

“There was a specific piece of it that was for testing. We’re doing a better job. Now there’s 15 labs testing samples from Washington state. We do have supply chain issues, things like viral swabs and not enough transport. There’s a shortage of things in the labs as well. Obviously, the PPE, the personal protective equipment is in high demand and is in an incredibly tight supply chain and there’s a very small number of supplies left," Riccelli said.

"So we’re doing things like putting in large state orders to vendors. We’re working on things like hospital surge capacity, making smart moves like moving pediatric patients in hospitals and transferring them to children’s hospitals, where there is capacity. You know, we have some very complex patients in our hospitals that, basically, are there for long stays. We’re working to discharge those patients and get them out of the hospitals,” he said.

“You know, we have a run on supplies and, heaven forbid if we did have more people get sick, we have got to be able to manage that and a lot of our rural hospitals, clinics and that type of thing are struggling. They’re not doing the elective surgeries right now because, obviously, they are paying attention to the limited supplies and the room that, if they need it, they need it to be there. But now the hospitals are not able to perform those services, which is how they make their money," Graham said. "So there are so many moving parts to this that we are paying attention to to try to see how do we mitigate this.”

"Out of the House, which led the budget stabilization account transfer, you need certain metrics, with votes required, to tap into that rainy day fund and so it was a bipartisan effort and it moved very quickly and I think the response in the Senate was understanding because we sent over a bill that initially was $100 million and that was amended from $50 million to start," Riccelli said. "Within 48 hours we were up to $200 million, just understanding that the needs were surging.”

Do you anticipate there might be a special session later this year if more needs to be done?

“I think that that’s likely," he said. "In the last couple of years we’ve passed some continuity of government deals and one of the things we’ve been discussing is there a possibility for a virtual session if that’s the best public health scenario? But action is needed. I’m awaiting to try to understand that going forward. At this point, I think we’re not there yet but it’s a definite realm of possibility. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed.”

“I am very proud that we’ve been able to come together, city, county, state, federal, and talk about these issues so that everybody’s on the same page on all of these issues that are coming up because that way we’re working together," Graham said. "The other part of this that has been so refreshing is when we passed the bill for the coronavirus that this virus doesn’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or if you are political at all. It doesn’t discriminate. I am so happy to see us being able to come together and do what we need to do to ease the effects of what this virus is visiting on us.”

One other benefit to all of this, says Marcus Riccelli, is that it reinforced a concept he supports to make sure Washington is more ready for the next outbreak.

“We increased funding for foundational public health, which, to me, I hope we don’t have to continue to have this conversation. I mentioned this today to a lot of our community leaders that, when we come out of this COVID crisis, we all understand that funding for foundational public health should be a top priority. It should be our first line of defense, that we have systemically defunded public health over the last few years and that is not a partisan issue, it is just a priority that we have lacked in and I am laser focused on it and I hope the community, I hope elected officials come out of this COVID crisis understanding that we cannot turn our eyes away from the importance of funding of foundational public health,” Riccelli said.

Spokane Democratic state Rep. Marcus Riccelli. We also heard from Spokane Republican Rep. Jenny Graham.

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Public and private entities are minimizing or eliminating public access to their facilities to reduce the risk of spreading contagious diseases. MultiCare, for example, on Wednesday announced all visitors will be screened at its hospital and clinic entrances in Spokane. Someone will take your temperature and ask if you’ve had the symptoms of a flu or cold or other virus or if you’ve been around someone who has had those symptoms. If you don’t have the right answers, you will be turned away.

There are places where people don’t have that ease of movement, the ability to find a place of refuge and they may be more susceptible to sickness. Those jails and prisons. The Spokane County jail has released several dozen low-level offenders to keep them out of harms’ way.

We weren’t able to connect with the jail’s director, Michael Sparber, to ask more about the measures taken there. But we did talk with Angel Tomeo Sam. She’s a bail disruptor for the Bail Project, which posts bail for some offenders who can’t afford to post their own. The Bail Project and other social justice groups in Spokane have written local leaders, urging them to do what they need to do to prevent the spread of infection in the county jail.

“We know that our jails here in Spokane, specifically, tend to be really overcrowded and the nature of Covid-19, it really could be disastrous. The infection is spread by people in close proximity and so, given that our jail is overcrowded, given that folks who are in the jail have a lot of health issues from coming right off the street and/or being homeless, and then just the incredible turnover of people who are being arrested and brought into the jail and, even if they’re ushered out, they’re really, it’s just a recipe for disaster," Tomeo Sam said. 

"We know that folks with underlying health conditions can cause infection or exacerbate issues. We’ve been warned out here in the general public to avoid going into public spaces, crowded spaces, gatherings and conventions, that that’s just something that we’re not doing right now. Why not afford that same kind of care, that same kind of practice with the people that are in the jail," she said.

The Bail Project suggests six actions to take. They include releasing people on their own recognizance when possible, including those who are charged with misdemeanors. They include release the inmates who are the most fragile, medically. Finally, the Bail Project argues that the jail should do more to ensure those behind bars have the care and hygiene opportunities they need, without them having to buy their own materials.

“Normally the folks who are in jail, they have to spend money on soap and shampoo and these things that should be made readily available to them and be taught and be told that this is just an avenue to spread and to discourage any type of infection," she said.

Angel Tomeo Sam is a bail disruptor for The Bail Project in Spokane.

Groups in the Portland area are also concerned about this, in the days after the governors of Oregon and Washington banned gatherings of more than 25 people as a way to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

In the region’s correctional facilities, such restrictions could be nearly impossible to enforce. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

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This week, the Washington County Sheriff received a letter from major civil rights and criminal defense organizations in Oregon.

They said they had unconfirmed information a deputy working in the Washington County Jail may have contracted the COVID-19 disease.

“We are all as organizations really concerned that if coronavirus gets inside a facility, it could just sweep through the population like wildfire.”

Alice Lundell is with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, one of the groups that signed the letter. She says in many facilities there just isn’t space for social distancing.

“The practical reality in many places is that there just isn’t the space to separate people enough to be effective in terms of preventing disease spread.”

Washington County says it has tested a few inmates, but is still waiting on results. They did not say if a deputy had been tested as the letter inquires.

The case illustrates the challenges the global pandemic poses for those who are incarcerated and those responsible for their care. A task that’s extremely difficult in crowded jails and prisons.

Dr. Christopher DiGiulio is the chief of medicine for the Oregon Department of Corrections. Last week, he acknowledged that it’s simply a matter of time before an inmate contracts the virus.
“What we would do is absolutely make sure that we cohort those vulnerable patients together and separate them from the incident case as much as possible.”
Across Oregon, there are more than 20,000 incarcerated in prisons and jails at any given time. And many of those are older and in poorer health. That puts them in a higher risk category for COVID-19.

Many institutions have suspended visitors in an effort to keep COVID-19 from getting inside. Despite being secure, prisons and jails are not static populations.

Lundell, with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, says not only do inmates come and go, but so do attorneys and corrections officers who work there.

“Any outbreak that happens will likely not stay in the facility … So, there is a very real prospect that any outbreak in any prison or jail would also spread into the wider community around that facility.”

Some agencies across the Northwest are releasing inmates, and are trying to make fewer arrests that bring people into the jail.
On Monday, the Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Washington, released 45 inmates, in part to reduce crowding over concerns surrounding COVID-19.
The Washington County Jail in Oregon has released more than 120 inmates so far this week to create more room.
Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese says the county is considering something similar.

“We have to do it in a very thoughtful and careful manner so that we continue to maintain the safety of our community while we’re in the process of dealing with this pandemic.”

Criminal defense attorneys are also working to get as many people out of jails as possible, before any potentials cases show up.
The risks extend to immigartion detainees as well.
Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement suspended all social visits at its detention facilities nationwide.

Immigration advocates have already filed a lawsuit that could force ICE to release immigration detainees in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma if they are considered at high risk for contracting the virus.
“It’s just a complete scramble in there.”

Matt Adams is the legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.

He says immigartion attorneys are now separated by glass from their clients when they meet. But then everyone sits together on benches in court -- doing little to create social distance.

“They say, ‘Oh we’re taking precautions.’ But the precautions are completely inconsistent and come up completely short.”

As law enforcement officials say they’re prepared, the virus continues to spread. Many worry jails and prisons could become incubators that ultimately undercut efforts to flatten the curve on the outside.

I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland

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Spokane’s Center for Justice is closing its doors next Tuesday. The center was founded more than 20 years ago by former Spokane County public defender Jim Sheehan to represent people who are treated wrongly by the legal system. It has offered help to people who can’t afford private attorneys. Its profile was raised when its attorney represented the family of Otto Zehm, a man who died in the custody of Spokane Police during an arrest.

Dainen Penta is the executive director of the Center for Justice. [interview with Dainen Penta]

Inland Journal airs every Thursday on Spokane Public Radio. The podcast is available anytime at spokane public radio dot org. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, NPR One or Google Play.