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Friday, September 22, 2023
Sept. 22, 2023

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Frustrations mount over coronavirus outbreak at Larch Corrections Center

Inmates, loved ones vent about a perceived lack of communication from administrators

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor

As COVID-19 surges through the inmate population at Larch Corrections Center, frustrations are mounting over a perceived lack of communication between facility administrators, residents and their loved ones.

“The communication from staff to inmates is nonexistent. Every day this place is run differently … so we don’t know what’s going on at all,” Robert Wilson, 36, said Wednesday in a phone interview from the minimum security state prison near Yacolt.

As of Thursday, 219 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. (There were no new positive cases Thursday.) With approximately 300 inmates currently housed at Larch, more than 70 percent have contracted the virus.

The Washington State Department of Corrections had reported Dec. 31 that six inmates tested positive. By Monday, the number had swelled to 218, after mass testing was conducted Dec. 30.

Wilson — who’s nearing the end of his sentence for robbery and drug convictions — is one of the people who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Later speaking through his fiancee, he said: “We’re held accountable for everything we do; yet, where is DOC’s accountability or communication?”

Inmates aren’t the only ones who are feeling left in the dark during the outbreak.

Stephanie Sanderson — whose boyfriend is housed at Larch and also tested positive — said she’s been reaching out to facility administrators, including the superintendent, since Dec. 23. It began after her boyfriend heard someone had left the facility on a ventilator.

However, no one responded to her questions, she said, adding that she’s been dissatisfied with the information released in DOC memos and bulletins. She wants to know what steps are being taken to improve communication and to provide appropriate care and safe living conditions.

“We’re not blaming anybody; what’s done is done,” Sanderson said Thursday morning, referring to the outbreak. “But to continue not to communicate what is happening to our loved ones is just cruel. These are our loved ones … their lives are in your hands.”

After 15 days, Sanderson finally got some answers Thursday afternoon during Larch’s biweekly Local Family Council meeting. Sanderson is on the council and represents it at the statewide Family Council, she said.

She came away from the meeting happy that inmates’ physical and mental health are being taken seriously, she said, but she remains unmoved by administrators’ resistance to having open dialog. Sanderson requested weekly meetings and a designated point of contact for loved ones to ask questions or share concerns. But she was told weekly meetings likely wouldn’t be doable at this time, she said, and she received a nonanswer to her other request.

“I’m not trying to be unreasonable,” Sanderson said. “It’s just very frustrating. ‘Yeah, I want you to make my loved one’s health a priority,’ but at the same time … there’s this cloak of darkness.”

In an email in response to questions from The Columbian, the corrections department said it has “implemented regularly scheduled COVID-19 informational calls with the local family councils at all respective facilities to provide updates, answer questions and alleviate concerns. Larch Corrections Center, like all department facilities, reports on the phone calls the data pertaining to their facility, and the notes taken during those calls are posted in the housing units or distributed via kiosk each week for reference to the incarcerated population.”

Comfort and safety

Among the talking points Sanderson proposed at the meeting were the availability of over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen and Theraflu, and hot drinks for sick inmates. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that indigent inmates receive assistance, such as toothpaste, soap and ibuprofen, every month. She said she was also told inmates would get their store orders Thursday, after previously hearing orders would be delayed.

All necessary food and drinks are provided to inmates, as well as over-the-counter medication approved by the medical providers on site. The medication is available for purchase and is provided on a regular basis to those unable to purchase it, DOC said in an email.

Restroom cleanliness was another major concern for Sanderson. She said she was told the facility has hired extra sanitation workers for every tier and put out a memo asking for inmate volunteers to clean in return for pay.

“I thought that was a nice incentive since a lot of people are out of work,” she said.

Recent lack of outdoor recreation has been an issue for inmates. Larch went into restricted movement status on Dec. 30 due to COVID-19 transmission. When facilities see an increase in positive cases, they limit opportunities for potential contact between inmates. As a result, yard time was temporarily suspended.

“A lot of us would love to be able to go outside and get some fresh air,” Wilson said Wednesday. “We don’t understand why we can’t go out. We would be more spaced apart.

“Being on top of each other in here can create problems,” he added.

Larch resumed outdoor recreation Thursday, according to the state. Sanderson said she was told inmates got 45 minutes outdoors. “Recreation time will continue to increase as individuals continue to recover,” the agency said.

Facility administrators have been looking at other ways to help inmates pass the time during the outbreak and feel better.

Sanderson said she was told the facility received 240 decks of playing cards from a local casino, as well as bags of licorice, puzzle books and other snack and hygiene items to put together gift bags for inmates. The facility is also looking into getting a grant from DOC for a TV rental program.

“That made me happy that they are doing something to lift their spirits. I’m glad they’re thinking about their mental health,” Sanderson said.