SEATTLE — After avoiding the COVID-19 pandemic for most of the year, the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac has been hit with a cluster of infections.
As of Thursday, 31 inmates and six staff members at the facility had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). No deaths or hospitalizations have been reported, according to prison and public health officials.
“We tried like hell to keep it out,” said U.S. District Court Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez. “We were successful for a long time. But it’s there now, and it’s a serious situation.”
Martinez said the infections likely will keep local federal courts closed for another month. They had been due to open for limited trials and in-person hearings after Sept. 8, when his latest closure order expires.
The federal courthouses in Seattle and Tacoma have been closed since early March, resulting in lengthy postponements of criminal and civil trials — and in some defendants being locked up for months awaiting court dates.
The first COVID infection at the facility — a staff member — was reported July 22, according to a BOP spokesperson. The first inmate tested positive on July 30. The outbreak remained relatively contained for the first couple of weeks of August, with just a handful of inmates and staff infections.
But the confirmed infections shot up rapidly over the past couple of weeks, according to Michael Filipovic, the federal public defender for Western Washington, who has been tracking the outbreak.
“I am very concerned for the health and safety, and actually the lives of our clients that are in the federal detention center,” Filipovic said. He said he’s also worried for staff at the facility.
Eighteen inmates were exposed before booking, while 10 were exposed during the period when a staff member was infectious, according to Sharon Bogan, a spokesperson for Public Health — Seattle & King County, who on Thursday did not have information on the remaining cases.
“With the information we have currently, we do not believe there is spread among the general population of inmates within the facility,” Bogan said in an email.
The SeaTac detention center holds about 600 inmates, including persons awaiting trial on criminal charges, and others who are serving sentences.
In an email, BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson said the prison system has taken steps to minimize spread of the virus, including canceling visitations and limiting transfers between facilities.
Since June, all inmates entering BOP facilities have been tested for COVID-19 and initially quarantined, according to Nelson. Those who test positive are placed in isolation until medical staff determine they are recovered. Inmates set for release or transfer to other facilities are tested and quarantined for a minimum of two weeks.
“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in,” Nelson said.
Nationally, according to the BOP, 116 people held in federal prisons and detention centers have died after contracting COVID-19, as has one BOP staff member. An additional 10,400 inmates and nearly 900 staff have had infections but recovered. That’s out of more than 140,000 persons in custody and about 36,000 staff.
With little room for physical distancing, state and federal prisons across the U.S. have accounted for some of the biggest COVID-19 clusters, according to data compiled by The New York Times. That has led for calls by criminal justice reform advocates to release vulnerable persons from lockups during the pandemic.
In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee authorized the release of more than 1,100 inmates nearing the end of sentences for nonviolent crimes. But the governor resisted calls from advocates to free thousands more, and the state Supreme Court in April rejected a lawsuit seeking to force the state to do so.
The BOP says it has placed 7,578 federal inmates nationally on home confinement under a provision in the CARES Act, the massive coronavirus package passed by Congress in March.
But some advocates say federal prisons have not taken adequate steps to release more people.
Filipovic said the guidelines for home confinement under the CARES Act have been narrowly construed under a memo from Attorney General William Barr. And he said the prison system also has not utilized existing authority allowing “compassionate release” of people who may be sick or vulnerable.
Individual defense attorneys have been filing a “flurry” of motions seeking release for clients due to the pandemic, said Jaime Hawk, legal strategy director for the ACLU of Washington’s Campaign for Smart Justice.
Filipovic and Hawk noted that many of the people incarcerated at the SeaTac facility have not been convicted.
“For people who are presumed innocent and are pretrial, they really should be released and not held right now,” Hawk said.