The first prisoner in Washington State to test positive for COVID-19 happened to be housed just across the sidewalk from me in the Minimum Security Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex. Not entirely shocking, given that Monroe is a few miles from Kirkland, home of the first documented coronavirus case in the US. One guard had come to work sick and got his positive test results at the end of his shift.

Known in the system as “camp,” MSU held just over 400 prisoners, each having less than four years to serve. By early April 2020, I’d been there two and a half years — and after more than 17 years in prison, I was no stranger to lockdowns. 

But this time was different. This time we were on quarantine lockdown, which no one (including staff) had experienced before. A lockdown not owing to the usual inter-gang dustup or assault, but over an invisible and possibly fatal enemy that no one understood, and everyone feared.

We were being told to “socially distance” ourselves.  All our privileges were suspended (including, first and foremost, visitations) yet we were still being made to stand in long lines to enter a chow hall where we were expected to sit only one foot apart from each other. 

Some of us were then packed into open dorms ­­– with 42 men literally stacked on top of one another in rows and rows of bunk beds — to clear out space for those that become infected.

As is always the case with airborne contagions in tight quarters, a day after the initial confirmed case, two more popped up, followed by several more. If you so much as sneezed or cleared your throat a little too aggressively, someone would report you. By the third day of quarantine, you could feel the anxiety in the air, as viral as the corona itself.

In the unit where the first prisoner had tested positive, the administration asked that certain prisoners forfeit their two-man rooms (a treasured privilege we wait six months to a year to earn) and return to the dorm so that older, more vulnerable prisoners could have their rooms. This did not go over as well as one might think. Shockingly, we’re not the most selfless bunch around. So the request became a demand and there was the inevitable pushback and threats of group resistance. 

Administrators sought a parley, bringing in McDonalds food for the entire unit! They knew their adversaries’ Achilles heel only too well. The unrest lasted only as long as a cheeseburger lasts in the hands of a hungry prisoner. And this development did not sit well with many prisoners in other units. It only added resentment to the brewing surge of anxiety and desperation.

A “modified rec schedule” was posted in the unit and we immediately noticed that our unit was to receive less recreation than any other unit. Tempers flared.

Administrators made a cursory appearance on the unit, delivering empty platitudes: “We’re in this together…” When I asked what measures were being taken to prevent another officer from importing coronavirus to us, I was told we would not be made privy to their protocols. But given my job, which had me driving around the prison complex all day, I had already seen firsthand how porous their “checkpoints” were. I mentioned as much, but it was not received well.

On May 8th at around 5:30PM, the fourth day of quarantine, someone pulled the fire alarm in my unit. Out the window of my room, I could see a large group evacuating the dorm. The hallway was filled with prisoners exiting the tiers with two-man cells, as well. I went out the fire exit alongside maybe 20 others, as we’re conditioned to do on a semi-regular basis. But this time several staff, including sergeants, were on the sidewalk outside the unit, stopping us from going to the gym as we normally would. 

A sergeant asked our small group why someone pulled the fire alarm to which a few prisoners responded by complaining about the lack of yard access and the fact that the other unit had gotten McDonalds. The conversation sounded lively, but not hostile or aggressive. But a hundred feet away, another exchange was taking place between another sergeant and the prisoners from the open dorm. From the body language and expressions, I could read defiance, visible preludes to hostility.

When the prisoners near me had finished airing their grievances, the sergeant asked me if I had anything to add. I’d been a tier rep for over a year, and he knew I can usually articulate the underlying issues). I told him tensions were high over the clunky and unequal way quarantine protocols were being implemented and that an hour or two of rec would likely do wonders for morale. 

He nodded and I asked him if we would get yard time. He said “yes, in an hour.” I asked if he was sure, because the men would want to know when I went back in. Yes, he said. He motioned for us to return to the unit and we all went back in. At no time did he or anyone else say we were doing anything wrong or tell us to disperse.

About 20 minutes later, the prisoners in the adjacent dorm decided to riot. They told the guard to leave, then barricaded all the entrances into the unit before destroying much of the common areas — the officer station, the HVAC and fire systems, our ice machine (!?), the dayroom televisions and anything else in their path. I’d estimate it was at least $80,000 in damages. 

I stayed in my room after the fire drill, aware that guards in riot gear with non-lethal shotguns were surrounding the unit while the fire alarm was shrieking the entire time.

Eventually, the responders called for all those uninvolved to come out. I did, along with everyone else. As it turned out, the ones who’d destroyed the unit had been the first to emerge as uninvolved with their hands raised. When the CERT team breached the unit, it was empty — except for my cellie. He chose to stay on his bunk since he was supposed to be released in a couple of weeks and was basically paralyzed with panic.

 He was the first to go to the hole.

Everyone else was flex-cuffed upon exiting their cell and marched to the yard where we were made to sit for a few hours, until well after dark. The yard was surrounded by dozens of units from multiple police agencies. 

Eventually, we were herded into the gym, where we sat all night long, still cuffed, while prison investigators individually interviewed each of the 220+ of us in private. 

At around 5 AM, a sergeant began reading the names of those who were free to return to the unit, skipping over about 24 names, including mine!  I looked around the room at who was left and saw some of the gang members who I knew were definitely involved. But there were also several other guys left who, like me, had stayed in their rooms during the mayhem. I knew this because they were my neighbors, my friends. We had all poked our heads out our doors to compare notes and comment on what we thought was happening, what would happen and so forth. Our common mistake was that we’d all gone out for the fire drill, instead of staying put. So we were all placed in administrative segregation that morning, under investigation for being involved in what was now being called a “disturbance.”

The following day, Governor Inslee held a coronavirus press conference in which he spent over an hour talking about the incident at Monroe. (Of course, I had no way of knowing this until weeks later, when my friend told me as much over the phone.) Inslee said that whoever was involved would pay dearly. But he also signed off on the “Rapid Release” program, whose first iteration would allow for the immediate release of prisoners with less than 60 days left.

Five days later, one of the gang members most involved in the rioting was released — directly to the streets from his cell on the tier above me in IMU (Intensive Management Unit). He had 37 days left. Over the next couple weeks, I’d see several more individuals–some who were involved, some not–let go under Rapid Release.

After two weeks, prison investigators came into IMU and interviewed each of us separately and at length, in a visiting booth. For once I was willing to answer their questions, and able to do so honestly. When I finished telling my version of events, the lead investigator said, “If all this pans out, you have nothing to worry about.”

On day 27, I received serious infractions for ‘engaging on a group demonstration’, ‘refusing an order to disperse’, and ‘being in an area considered out of bounds’. I immediately mounted a defense from my solitary confinement cell, requesting witness statements from everyone relevant. A few days later I received 12 statements from prisoners who’d been present, all of whom accurately described what I was doing during the time of the riots. Some even spoke to the fact that I had been a calming influence on the unit in the days prior.

But the incident report written by the sergeant who’d been engaged with the dorm group painted a different picture entirely. He’d written it 13 days after the incident and falsely quoted me. He described, with a level of detail many creative writers would envy, my demeanor, stance and even my emotional state. 

While the riot was going on, I was never within a hundred feet of this sergeant; he was on the other side of our dorm, interacting with a group of about 40 men. Eventually, the sergeant I did speak with wrote his own statement acknowledging I was nowhere near the first sergeant. However, his statement also suggested I was the spokesman for the group and that as I was returning to the unit, I raised my arm and pointed my finger at him in “an intimidating manner.” The hearings officer asked me if I had anything to say. I pointed out the discrepancies between statements, and I pointed out that the second sergeant never said I was demonstrating or refusing to disperse. But he already had his findings written out. Guilty, on all counts.

He took 32 days of my good time, demoted me to medium custody after I spent 75 days in solitary, and took away my store privilege for three months. I have 14 months left on a 19-year sentence, and these infractions will likely preclude me from transitioning to work release.

I’m now at Walla Walla, and the first positive cases have popped up recently in other units of this institution. We’re not on lockdown yet, but because of staff shortages (due to corona-related issues) we have been denied rec for four of the past six days.

I’m not going to say one word about it.