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News / Clark County News

‘It’s going to spread like wildfire’: COVID-19 infects more than 200 Larch inmates

Corrections facility staff unprepared for virus, prisoners say

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor
Published: January 7, 2021, 6:05am

Freddie Deleon is on the road to recovery after contracting COVID-19 and just months away from being released from prison. But he fears other inmates won’t be so lucky.

The 33-year-old is one of more than 200 inmates at Larch Corrections Center who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus over the last couple of weeks.

“When I first got it, I was scared. My dad was on the phone in tears, worried about me, my mom is worried about me. … I put more heartache on my family getting over this sickness,” Deleon said Wednesday in a phone interview from Larch. “The fear of dying is no longer there, but there are other people in here who could.”

On Dec. 31, the Washington State Department of Corrections reported that Larch had six incarcerated individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, the prison reported 218 inmates had tested positive. As of Wednesday, the number was 219.

The prison near Yacolt has a capacity of 480 inmates. The average daily population at Larch in November, the most recent DOC data available, was 327.

State officials said all inmates who tested positive are being housed together to reduce the spread of the virus, which is standard protocol. They’re also working to provide regular, safe access to telephones and JPay, a prison messaging service.

“As we move forward in the coming weeks, you can expect to see cohorting in the day rooms and shower/bathroom areas, serial testing of our incarcerated population, and an increased awareness to Personal Protective Equipment protocols, cleaning, sanitizing and social distancing,” Larch Superintendent James C. Miller Jr. wrote in a Dec. 30 memo addressing the outbreak.

Early concerns

Even before there were confirmed cases of novel coronavirus at Larch, inmates and their families were concerned about the facility’s ability to employ social distancing.

“There’s no social distancing. Once it hits the prison, it’s going to explode. It’s going to spread like wildfire,” Deleon had told The Columbian in April.

Now, it’s a reality. Deleon tested positive for the virus over the weekend. It started with a sore throat, then came body aches, a headache, and loss of sense of taste and smell.

On Monday, Deleon called his sister, Ona Minjarez, 48, of San Pedro, Calif., to break the news, after spending three days in what he described as solitary confinement.

Deleon said the “hole,” as he calls it, was cold, and the lights were on the entire time. He wasn’t given the usual shower and phone privileges. Corrections staff never told him why he was being kept there, he said, but he assumed it was because of the virus. Four others who displayed symptoms after him were sent there, too, he said.

“I understand they were trying to pull me from the population until they figured out what was going on,” Deleon said. “But I was treated like I did something wrong.

“They were not prepared for this, 100 percent not prepared for this. They were scrambling, trying to figure out the situation,” he said.

Some inmates held there yelled and kicked their cell doors to get corrections staff’s attention and share their concerns. Shortly after, things improved, and Deleon was moved to the quarantine unit, he said.

A spokeswoman for DOC said Larch, like all state correctional and work release facilities, follows screening, testing and infection control guidelines “to safely house COVID-19 positive incarcerated individuals separately from healthy individuals.” Symptomatic inmates who are awaiting test results are also separated from the rest of the population to mitigate possible spread of COVID-19.

“These measures are not the same as what members of the public refer to as ‘solitary confinement.’ They are measures taken to protect the health and safety of all incarcerated individuals and to mitigate and stop the spread of COVID-19,” the agency said in an email.

Deleon wasn’t the first inmate to get sick, he said. The week prior, one inmate was removed from the facility after he complained of shortness of breath and chest pain. A couple of days later, at least three other people started showing symptoms, and they were sent to another facility, Deleon said.

In lockdown

The whole facility was placed on lockdown last week, Deleon said, and everyone was tested Dec. 30. But by that time, many inmates were already displaying symptoms.

“When people started getting sick, they kept it to themselves and it just spread overnight,” Robert Wilson, 36, said in a phone interview Wednesday from Larch. He’s been housed there for two years, serving time for robbery and drug convictions, among others.

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He was notified that he tested positive for COVID-19 last week. His symptoms so far have been mild, including fever, chills, a sore throat — that felt like “a shard of glass” on his tonsils — and loss of taste and smell.

In the spring, he served as a tier representative, a liaison between inmates and administration. At that time, he asked how the facility planned to address novel coronavirus concerns during flu season. He was told all symptoms would be presumed to be the virus, and anyone who displayed symptoms would be removed from the facility.

“Getting sent out of here is a punishment in the minds of us; it’s going backward,” Wilson said. “Being at a work camp, it’s a privilege; we earned it,” which is why inmates didn’t share when they started feeling sick, he said.

“It’s been anarchy for the past few days, no violence, anarchy as in staff doesn’t seem to know what to do here,” Wilson explained.

When tests started coming back positive, staff moved inmates from tier to tier.

“They just scrambled us all up together. There was no way they could contain this virus here,” Wilson said.

Both Wilson and Deleon were supposed to be placed on work release Nov. 20, but DOC temporarily halted transfers to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Transfers are resuming, in a limited capacity, this month. Neither knew if they would be transferred.

Wilson is due for release, with an ankle monitor, May 7, he said. Deleon, who is serving time for assault and drug convictions, among others, is due for release March 30, he said.

According to DOC, Larch inmates are grouped into cohorts and maintain the same schedule. They’re able to leave their living areas, access showers, day rooms, kiosks and phones, while maintaining physical distancing and wearing personal protective equipment. The facility went into restricted movement status Dec. 30 to mitigate the virus’s spread.

When facilities see an increase of COVID-19 cases, they may establish alternative housing areas, and “in some cases, access to phones, showers and common areas may be limited for a short period of time,” the agency said in an email.

“The health and safety of the incarcerated is the department’s priority, and once these moves to alternative housing locations are completed, incarcerated individuals are able to resume regular use of common areas with their cohorts, regular telephone use and regular shower schedules.”