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Washington issues $60,000 fine for prison where 8 people died after testing positive for COVID

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OLYMPIA — State regulators have fined the Washington Department of Corrections $60,000 for failing to enforce COVID-19 protective measures at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen.

The penalty comes after five incarcerated individuals and three corrections staffers at the facility died after testing positive for the virus.

That’s the highest death tolls each for prison workers and incarcerated individuals at any one of Washington’s 12 prisons, according to data from the Washington Department of Corrections.

The penalty comes after an inspection by the state Department of Labor & Industries. The agency began the review after a correctional officer tested positive for COVID-19 in June and then died, according to a statement from L&I.

Another corrections staffer at the facility who had tested positive for COVID-19 died in July, according to the statement. A staffer also died in December 2020.

In total, four Washington corrections officers have died after contracting the virus, according to DOC data. The fourth fatality was a Monroe Correctional Complex employee.

The L&I investigation found corrections workers at Stafford Creek had not enforced distancing measures and didn’t make sure that all their staffers wore masks or facial coverings when working around others, according to the statement.

“As a result of the latest inspection, Corrections has been cited for a willful serious violation,” according to the statement. The statement makes no references to the incarcerated individuals who died at Stafford Creek.

In a statement, Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange said she has called for a review of Stafford Creek’s safety culture.

“We care deeply about the safety of staff and incarcerated persons and this compliance issue … is troubling,” Strange said in prepared remarks. “We are disappointed to see any incidence of non-compliance and I have called for a review of the safety culture at Stafford Creek Corrections Center.”

“The Department is continuously working to ensure compliance with proper masking and social distancing protocols,” she added. “Our state’s emergency response to COVID-19 has been robust in supporting staff safety, including mandatory vaccination of all employees.”

A total of 16 incarcerated individuals have died at Washington’s prisons, according to DOC: five at Stafford Creek; four each at Coyote Ridge and Airway Heights corrections centers; two at Washington State Penitentiary and one at Clallam Bay Detention Center.

Since the inspection, the agency has worked to enforce the use of masks and physical distancing, installed some Plexiglass barriers and taken other measures to separate personnel, according to L&I.

In an email Wednesday, a DOC spokesperson said six disciplinary investigations have now been undertaken at Stafford Creek for workers allegedly failing to follow COVID regulations.

The agency has taken disciplinary action against two staffers for not following COVID measures, according to spokesperson Rachel Ericson. Two other investigations have been completed with no action taken yet, and two additional cases are under investigation.

For a long stretch during the pandemic, DOC took no disciplinary action against corrections workers for failing to abide by COVID safety measures. In responses to public records requests from The Seattle Times, the agency has acknowledged that no such infractions were issued at any of the state’s 12 prisons from August 2020 through April 2021.

Stafford Creek Corrections Center normally holds roughly 1,900 incarcerated individuals, in maximum, medium and minimum custody, according to DOC’s website.

L&I has cited the correctional facility before, fining it $9,000 in June for mask use and social distancing violations.

DOC has 15 working days to appeal the penalties, according to the statement. The fines paid go into a supplemental workers’ compensation pension fund, according to L&I, which helps injured workers, as well as families of those who have died while working.

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