(March 26, 2020) - An inmate who began serving his sentence in the Washington state corrections system as the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic is demanding that the state implement procedures for prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19 infections in its prisons.
Nagel v. Washington Department of Corrections et al., No. 20-2-05585-4, complaint filed, 2020 WL 1329368 (Wash. Super. Ct., Pierce Cty. Mar. 17, 2020).
Ryan M.R. Nagel filed suit March 17 in the Pierce County Superior Court, alleging the Washington Department of Corrections’ failure to respond to the threat posed by the coronavirus violates several provisions of the state constitution.
Nagel was convicted of first-degree negligent driving, firearm possession and drug possession, according to the suit. He began his sentence March 11, the same day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee banned certain gatherings of more than 250 people.
Nagel seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and an award for attorney fees and costs.
The Washington Department of Corrections operates 12 prisons with a combined capacity of 16,027 inmates.
’Woefully inadequate’ cleaning
The suit alleges inmates in the state prison system are at risk for the coronavirus because they are “regularly subjected to unhealthy food, … inadequate health care, and generally poor living conditions.”
A COVID-19 outbreak in the prisons is expected, according to a declaration by internal medicine specialist Dr. William Bauer filed with the complaint.
Three people in two state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, the suit says.
Cleaning at Washington’s jails has been “woefully inadequate” to kill germs left on surfaces, the complaint says. Additionally, carriers of the coronavirus may stay asymptomatic, and infected people may take up to 14 days to show symptoms, it says.
The suit alleges inmates in state prisons are not presently tested for the virus before booking and there are no cleaning procedures in place.
The complaint lists many potential consequences of a COVID-19 outbreak in the prison system, including a shortage of guards due to mandatory 14-day staff quarantines, riots arising from visitation restrictions, and stress on the state’s medical system resulting from a shortage of medical supplies.
Prison doctors may be forced to withhold care from those most likely to die so they can treat those with a better chance, the suit says.
Suit: State actions are unconstitutional
Nagel alleges the Department of Corrections’ actions in relation to COVID-19, including failing to provide conditions for prisoners to practice social distancing and proper hygiene, jeopardize inmates’ and prison staff’s lives.
He says the state’s actions violate the privileges and immunities clause of the state constitution, Wash. Const. art. 1, § 12; the cruel-punishment clause, Wash. Const. art. 1, § 14; and the state’s general constitutional duty to protect and maintain health, safety and welfare.
The complaint seeks a court order requiring the state corrections system to establish that it is taking appropriate measures to ensure proper cleaning of prison facilities and prevention and treatment of COVID-19 infections, or to implement an acceptable plan for doing so.
Nagel also requests that low-level detainees over the age of 60 and those at most risk for contracting the virus be released or placed on electronic home monitoring.