Wash. Supreme Court rejects lawsuit seeking additional release of inmates

In a 5-4 decision, a court majority found the emergency petition by Columbia Legal Services had not proven the state is failing in its duties to incarcerated people


By Jim Brunner
The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday swiftly rejected a lawsuit seeking to force Gov. Jay Inslee to order the release of thousands of people from Washington prisons to protect them from potential exposure to the coronavirus.

In a 5-4 decision, a court majority found the emergency petition by Columbia Legal Services had not proven the state is failing in its duties to incarcerated people.

The court’s order, signed by Chief Justice Debra Stephens, found “on the record presented, the Petitioners have not shown the Respondents’ actions constitute deliberate indifference to the COVID-19 risk at the Department of Corrections facilities…”

The ruling came just hours after the court’s first-ever fully remote hearing to consider oral arguments in the lawsuit, Colvin vs. Inslee, which was filed last month. The decision is not expected to affect the ongoing early release of hundreds of people from DOC custody through commutations and other measures authorized by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month.

The court’s Zoom video call Thursday morning proceeded like countless others since the coronavirus pandemic shifted workplaces into virtual settings. There were failures to unmute, people talking over one another, and occasional blips of distorted audio.

But the subject matter was far weightier than the average office chat, as the court considered the lawsuits request to force a massive release of people from state prison facilities – a move opposed by associations representing prosecutors, counties and crime victims.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued the state is unconstitutionally jeopardizing the health of incarcerated people by holding them in prisons unable to provide adequate social distancing and sanitation.

At Thursday’s hearing, Nick Straley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, contended the state was operating an unconstitutional prison system amid the pandemic.

At first, though, he was not audible. “Mr. Straley, you are muted,” Stephens informed him.

Quickly fixing the issue and apologizing, Straley pointed to the video hearing itself as evidence of the dangers faced by people held in crowded state prisons.

“Your Honors, COVID-19 is so dangerous and so contagious that it actually illegal for us to be in the same room this morning,” Straley said, yet, “my clients sleep in the same room with two, or three, or 25 other people.” When they awake, they are crammed into day rooms, mess halls and bathrooms, and share sinks and telephones, he added.

“Overcrowding is always unpleasant. Sometimes it is unconstitutional. But in this case it can be deadly,” Straley said.

John Samson, an assistant state attorney general, defended the state Department of Corrections and Inslee, saying they have already taken reasonable steps to protect people in prisons, including the ongoing early release of about 1,100 people through commutations and other measures.

“They have made difficult decisions on how best to protect the incarcerated population, how best to protect public safety, how best to avoid future harm to victims, and how best to protect those individuals who are released when they go to the community,” Samson said.

The lawsuit’s five named plaintiffs have underlying health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, leaving them at heightened risk should they contract COVID-19. The lead plaintiff, Shyanne Colvin, 21, is pregnant and taking medication for seizures while serving out a drug conviction at Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. The lawsuit sought the release of the five plaintiffs, as well as others in state custody who are 50 or older, have serious medical problems, or are within 18 months of their release date.

Samson argued those demands were not reasonable, and disputed that conditions in prisons are unconstitutional, noting the outbreak has been relatively contained, with just 12 people inside the Monroe Correctional Complex minimum-security unit testing positive for COVID-19, and no reported deaths.

He said the state continues to look for people who can safely be freed, including the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, Colvin, who has been “fast tracked” along with about 15 other pregnant women in prisons, for release into a “community parenting setting.”

Some justices signaled skepticism of the lawsuit’s broad demands. Justice Barbara Madsen pointed to Boeing employees returning to work as a sign of businesses returning to normal, “and certainly the prisons need to get on with the business of rehabilitation.”

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©2020 The Seattle Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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