Washington Department of Corrections receives failing grade for COVID-19 prison response


Soraya Marashi


The Washington State Department of Corrections received a “failing” grade for its response to COVID-19, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. 


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The report compiled data and evaluated pandemic responses in prison systems from all 50 states, evaluating them on four categories related to the state’s efforts to limit transmission of COVID-19 and protect incarcerated populations.

The first category was on limiting the number of people in prisons, in which states received points for reducing prison populations and “instituting policies that reduced admissions and facilitated earlier releases.” The report notes that as of December 2020, Washington prisons still remained over 95% capacity, and the state failed to enact policy to reduce the number of people admitted to prison for violations of probation and parole. 

In the population reduction category, Washington scored 72 out of 130 points. The prison population reduction rate in the state, between March 2020 and July 2021, was only 18.5%. While the state did not suspend incarceration for technical violations and did not establish additional medical and/or compassionate release policies, some accelerated release policies were instituted, as well as minor offense releases. 

The second category evaluated by the Prison Policy Initiative was infection and death rates. The second category states:

“We penalized prison systems where infection and mortality rates exceeded the statewide COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, because some key decisions were based on correctional agencies’ faulty logic that prisons were controlled environments and therefore better positioned to stop the spread of infection than communities outside prison walls.” 

Washington scored 28 out of 145 points in this category. The infection rate for the state’s incarcerated population is 44.5%, compared to the general population’s rate of 5.9% – a rate nearly 8 times smaller. 

The third category examined by the organization was vaccinating the incarcerated population. States in the report scored higher for “including incarcerated people in their vaccine rollout plans, as well as for higher vaccination rates among their prison populations.” 

Washington received 42 out of 55 points, making it the state with one of the highest scores in this category. This can largely be attributed to Gov. Inslee’s high prioritization of vaccinating the state population as a whole as soon as vaccines became widely available.

The final category scored the prisons’ efforts to address basic health needs — including mental health — through policy changes. States were given points for “waiving or substantially reducing charges for video and phone calls, or providing masks and hygiene products to incarcerated people,” as well as suspending medical co-pays, implementing regular COVID-19 testing, and requiring personnel to wear masks in facilities. 

Washington received 85 out of 115 points, which is another high score. The state was awarded points for providing masks to incarcerated people, providing hygiene products, free phone calls, free video calls, and requiring staff to wear masks and get tested for COVID-19. The state was penalized for still charging medical co-pays.

Like Washington, the overwhelming majority of states also received an “F” grade. 


The Washington Department of Corrections did not respond to an interview request by the State of Reform.