When we first began hearing reports on the news about the coronavirus, no one in here took it seriously. I certainly did not. Why would I? SARS, MERS, H1N1, all these have materialized into the public consciousness since I’ve been in prison. Exotic viruses conjured from the depths of alien jungles by bizarre rites of foreign food-fetishes, diseases that resulted in a few deaths at an anonymizing distance, and the clogging of a few U.S. news cycles. This would be no different, I told myself. A few weeks of remotely generated hype.
And then the first U.S. death occurred at the Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, Washington. A few miles from here. I started paying more attention. The number of cases around the world started rising, and everyone started paying more attention, even the most jaded, circumscribed prisoners among us. Still, this outbreak, now deemed a pandemic, seemed strictly a free world problem.
When Governor Inslee announced a “stay at home” order on March 13, it became a prison problem. It became real. The prison administration immediately cancelled all visits until further notice and suspended all volunteer programs. Then, all programs were shut down. They immediately set up roadblock checkpoints at all three entrances to the prison complex. Two masked guards at each checkpoint, allowing access only to contract staff, all of whom had to have their temperature scanned prior to entry. Each checkpoint guard was equipped with a questionnaire-laden clipboard, which they would check off after asking a series of symptom-related questions. The Department of Corrections (DOC) and the governor touted the measures being taken as sufficient, with Governor Inslee even going so far as to claim during one of his daily coronavirus briefings that we were “safer in prison than [we] would be if released.”
Initially, we watched as large numbers of people were being turned away at the checkpoints. But while driving around the complex as my job duties require, I noticed the guards often waving people through without checking them. Either the ones waved were their cronies, or the singular correctional constant – laziness – was kicking in.
Within a few days, the administration “quidded” the camp, meaning that those of us in C and D units (which connect to each other) no longer had contact with A and B units. All community work crews were suspended, as were all outside work crews (guys who work outside the gate, but within the complex, deemed non-essential. They closed the weight pile and music room altogether. Since the joint was now split in half, everyone saw the yard and gym half as often. They posted signs limiting the dayroom and patio capacities to ten. Instead of running an entire unit at a time to chow, they started feeding twelve at a time making us sit two to a table. Mainline took hours, further reducing our access to rec. And yet, the dorms still held forty-two men each, prisoners stacked like cordwood - bunks situated side-by-side in many cases, a 16” piece of wood between one man and the next. There was as yet no talk of reducing the population, so the consensus among prisoners, and even some staff, was that the protective measures taken by the administration amounted to nothing more than PR gestures, boxes they could check off of a CDC pamphlet.
On March 30th, we found out that one of our least favorite guards had tested positive for Covid-19 after he’d worked at least one shift in the camp. Then one of our favorite guards told a few of us that the sick guard had posted on social media that he was sick when he came in, but only got the test result after he’d been in B unit. This revelation set off a shockwave of animosity, frustration, and worry that for some, inched toward desperation.
Sunday, April 5th. A prisoner in B-unit presented with fever, headache and respiratory distress. Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) took him to the street-hospital where he tested positive for coronavirus. B-unit went on immediate quarantine lockdown. All outside crews were suspended, even my job which, being the operator of the wastewater plant, had been deemed essential.
Hours later a prisoner on D-unit, where I live, was also taken to the hospital for flu-like symptoms. The rapid test administered to him came up negative, but D-unit was placed on quarantine lockdown anyway, as a precaution. Meals would be delivered to the tiers, and we would no longer go to yard with C-unit. They further quidded D-unit tier by tier, which meant that each tier would be allowed only one hour per day access to phones, microwaves, JPay, etc…
By Tuesday, three more prisoners in B-unit tested positive.
There is a peculiar heightening of anxiety specific to being confined within a facility undergoing an outbreak of a potentially lethal virus. You feel trapped, helpless. The clock takes on a new, sinister aspect, as if it is counting down. Ruminations of your own mortality intrude into daily life, bleeding through into conversations and coloring your time spent alone. No one wants to die in prison. But the prospect of dying at a minimum-security camp where everyone has less than four years is especially infuriating.
The unit sergeant, unit supervisor and all the counselors had not been on the unit since Friday. We had no one from whom to seek redress of grievances. Tuesday afternoon the Correction 1 Program Manager (CPM) and associate superintendent visited each tier, offering platitudes (“We’re in this together…”) and a yard schedule which allowed D-unit far less time than every other unit. I asked the CPM about changing the schedule and told him that the quarantine protocol felt punitive, given that we’d been watching other units go to yard, especially since we’d had no positive cases in D-unit. He said, “I’ll see what I can do… I can’t promise anything…”
An hour later two more prisoners in B-unit tested positive.
By the afternoon of Wednesday, April 8th, we had been confined to the unit for three days. Of each of those days, twenty-three hours had been spent in our cells, or dorms. You could feel the air tightening in the unit, the tension ratcheting toward a brittle state.
At about 5pm on Wednesday, we got word that the night before, B-unit had barricaded their tier entrances with mattresses. And that the administration (the CPM) had offered concessions as a negotiating tactic: extra yard, projector movies, and McDonald’s food. The mattresses came down.
To claim that the administration incentivized an uprising might be an overstatement. But the bitter fumes of injustice certainly acted as a catalyst for what was to come.
At about 6pm, the fire alarm sounded on my tier. From the window in my cell I could see prisoners evacuating from 4-tier, which is a dorm. (An aerial photo of D-unit would resemble the letter “H”, the building having only one level. Tier 2, where I live, would be the upper left prong of the H. Tier 4 would be the upper right prong. The cross-member of the H would be the common areas: counselor offices, officer station, dayrooms, etc.) Prisoners were also evacuating 2-tier, so I went out the fire exit with them (The fire exits would be the tips of the prongs of the H. The entrance the unit would be where the crossmember meets the right prongs of the H.).
We were met by the several guards on the sidewalk, maybe twenty feet from the fire exit, who told us to stop. We stopped. Outside, there were maybe twelve of us from 1 and 2 tiers, twenty or so from 4-tier. Three sergeants came running as if something was happening. It wasn’t. Not yet, anyway. One sergeant spoke to the 4-tier group, the other two to our group. A few prisoners expressed to the sergeants their frustration at having been denied yard, at the fact that B-unit had been basically rewarded for acting out and we’d been punished for complying.
The sergeants tried to sympathize without being sympathetic, the bailiwick of seasoned correctional officers. My neighbor, Austin, said, “Sarge, it’s bullshit that B-unit gets McDonald’s and we can’t even get yard.”
“Yeah,” the sergeant said, sidestepping the actual issue, “They fucked up there. They should’ve never done that.”
I asked the other sergeant whether he thought we’d be able to get any rec that day and explained that a little rec would go a long way toward alleviating tension.
“As soon as B-unit gets done with their deep-clean,” he said, “I’ll get you guys out for an hour and a half. We’ll try for 6:50.”
“Is that a maybe, Sarge, or do you put your word on it?” He said he promised to do his best to make it happen. I thanked him and went back inside and straight to my cell. The entire incident lasted less than five minutes.
At around 6:40, someone on the tier said there were “a gang of cops at the front gate, suited and hooted.” From the vantage in front of my cell, I could just make out-through the 1 tier fire exit window-a wall of blue spackling in the evening sun. Two thoughts tried to occupy the same space simultaneously. Could they be that mad about the fire drill that turned out to be bogus? And we’re definitely not going to yard in ten minutes.
From my cell window I could see a guard running down the sidewalk toward 4-tier, carrying a rubber-bullet shotgun. I ran to the window at the end of the tier, the fire exit. Six or seven guards were coming out of the gym, all of them carrying beanbag shotguns, stingball guns, and teargas grenade launchers. They headed toward D-unit.
Someone said, “4-tier is going off. They’ve pushed a bunk up against the unit entrance.” I went back to my cell and stayed there.
My cellie, a 53 year-old plumber named Tim, could easily pass as Dustin Hoffman’s stunt double. He came to prison for the first time three years ago for killing a methed-out lunatic who’d attacked him on his own property. Tim might be the most mellow prisoner I’ve ever met. As he and I watched events unfold from our window, I could measure even his uneasiness by how often he rubbed the top of his head and made small sounds. Tim was five weeks from work release.
We could see, through the windows of 4-tier, indistinct movement-bunks and lockers being shoved around. Prisoners were shouting insults and taunts at the surrounding guards through the windows.
A growing rumble and banging came from outside the cell door. I poked my head out. A prisoner from 4-tier was shoving a waist-high bookshelf down the hall toward the fire exit. He placed it sideways in front of the door (which opens outward) and returned a minute later with another bookshelf, arranging it in front of the first.
“Well that oughta keep ‘em out,” I said as he strode past, visibly inflated. “Unless they think of tipping them over or pushing them aside.”
He acted like he didn’t hear me and ran off, likely to do more barricading. Or maybe to get some barricading tips.
A couple Surenos (a Hispanic gang) from 4-tier came running down the 2-tier hallway, one of whom carried a fire extinguisher, brandishing it like a battering ram.
The other one yelled, “If you ain’t with the shit, cell in.”
I celled in.
The unit fire alarm began shrieking. I wanted badly to evacuate, but that had not gone well earlier, and I did not want to get shot. Everybody knows that “non-lethal” and “life-changing” are not mutually exclusive. Rubber bullets can destroy a knee almost as well as non-rubber ones. For the first time in more than seventeen years, I did not know what to do.
I looked at Tim and said, “Get ready.”
“For what? What’s gonna happen?”
“They’re probably going to tear-gas us.”
“How do I get ready for that?” Tim asked, looking around his side of the cell frantically, as if among his meager belongings there might be a gas mask.
I showed him to dampen a towel and tie it around his head, over his nose and mouth. I did the same.
The hallway filled up with yellow smoke, blocking our view out of the narrow window in the door. I shoved a shirt against the bottom of the door. Tim and I sat there like a pair of terry-clothed bandits, looking at the blank yellow window in the door, the fire alarm deafening us.
Finally, I heard a correctional voice, its timbre and cadence competing with the siren. I could make out none of what the voice was saying until I cracked the cell door.
I heard: “…uninvolved…” and raised my hands, heading through the smoke (which turned out to be fire extinguisher discharge) toward the fire exit. Guards were positioned on either side of the door.
Outside, a group about thirty prisoners were already seated on the grass, their hands behind them. Two guards grabbed me by the arms and zip-tied my hands behind my back, told me to find a spot. Armed guards stood behind us.
I watched as prisoners filed out of the fire exits, hands raised, then zip-tied. Once all the uninvolved were safely restrained, I figured, the CERT (Correctional Emergency Response Team), who were now on the scene, would breach the unit. Maybe there would be a standoff, maybe all the fireworks utilized by CERT would quickly overwhelm the rioters-either way, we had front row seats.
But eventually, there was no one left inside the unit. Everyone said they were uninvolved. Seeing the goon-squad, locked and loaded, left with no one to goon elicited a smattering of chuckles from the group of seated prisoners, now numbering two hundred and five.
Once they had secured the unit and shut off the fire alarm, we were told to get up and proceed to the yard. They told us to sit on the ground. Surrounding the yard were at least twenty cop cars, marked units from several local Police Departments, the County Sheriff, and the State Patrol.
My buddy Levi said, “Looks like the sarge is keeping his word after all. I figure we’ll be out here at least an hour and a half.”
When the sun went down, all the cops angled their cars and SUV’s so that their headlights and spotlights were blinding us. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. We were told to sit in rows corresponding to our respective units, facing one wall.
Two hours. That is the point, give or take, at which your body starts vehemently protesting your hands behind cuffed behind your back, and that is assuming your shoulders are mechanically sound. An ache develops. You try to assuage it by shrugging, bringing your shoulders forward then back, all to no avail. Smouldering discomfort ignites, and with bad shoulders especially, begins burning down one’s state of mind.
I had not had occasion to slip my cuffs to the front in over twenty years. I used to be able to do it in the back of a cop car in about ten seconds without making a sound. Twenty years is a long time. Not everyone can do it. The key is to have long arms, and be relatively lean and flexible. You must be able to “step” your feet inside the distance to your cuffed wrists, once you’ve slipped the cuffs past your butt.
Now that I had my hands in front of me, I started helping guys with bad shoulders. You can “pick” zip-ties by slipping the insertable tip between the locking tab and the teeth (which make the “zip” sound). I showed a few guys, and they showed a few guys…
At first, the guards would rush over and re-zip-tie a prisoner if they spotted him with his hands in front of him. By 11PM, so many guys had moved their hands to their fronts that the guards relented and said they’d do it for the few that hadn’t already.
At around 11:30PM, IIU (Investigation and Intelligence Unit) began interviewing prisoners. They would take six at a time, to be split up and interviewed separately, until all two hundred and five of us had been questioned. There is no heat in the gym and the guards had both outer doors propped open. The temperature that night was slated to drop in the mid-forties, and I’m quite sure that it did. We sat on the concrete floor and shivered, surrounded by a dozen armed CERT guards, waiting to be interviewed.
I was finally pulled for questioning at around 2:30AM. The lady interviewing me was shockingly nice. When I mentioned that I toteach the wastewater operator course here, she said she used to sponsor and help instruct the same class before she went to work at a different prison. I gave her my version of events, omitting, of course, any potentially identifying details. She thanked me and sent me back to the gym.
3:15AM. By now, even the chatterboxes had gone silent. Numerous prisoners had urinated in two corners of the gym because the guards would allow no one else to use the restroom until around midnight. The “piss ponds” crept out to twenty feet in either direction from each corner. Packed as most of us were at the opposite end, we could still smell it. Some guys had opted for the open real estate found near the ponds and lay down, using that gift of the homeless and the county jail veteran to find sleep anywhere, under any conditions. The rest of us sat shivering in the night air.
The CERT team leader strode into the gym and bellowed, “Listen up.” Desert camo tucked into combat boots, bullet proof vest, headset with boom mic, crowded utility belt, and riot shotgun pointed at the ground, its trigger lightly fingered.
“We’re going to start sending you guys back to the units around four. We’ve got volunteers from other units in there, cleaning up D-unit. Making it habitable. Just be patient, and we’ll get you back as quick as we can.”
A collective sigh of relief escaped all of us. We had gotten some of the damage report, snippet by snippet, from staff throughout the night. They had destroyed much of the common area: the officer station, computer and all; the 65” flat screen TVs in the dayroom; many windows; the JPay kiosk; even the ice machine. Pretty much all of the stuff that we use. I would find out later that they damaged the HVAC and fire suppression systems. Rumors had been circulating that we would wait in the gym until chainbuses arrived to ship us out. But to where? We were still on quarantine. And round and round it went.
At 4:05AM, Sgt. McGrady began slowly reading off names. He called out one name, one DOC number. And like a contestant on the Price is Right, one prisoner in the now-standing crowd would perk up and work his way to the door, where his ID and matching face was verified by ICU before he could exit. Then another name. Another DOC number. Within a couple names I realized he had started with C-unit, which meant I would be at least a hundred names away.
I was so tired that I felt almost intoxicated, my hands and feet numb from the cold and the zip-ties. Exhaustion from the stress and being kept up all night, and hunger from shivering for ten hours made it difficult to think clearly. I stood there swinging, listening to the endless and glacial litany of names and numbers, and, for the first time ever, fantasized about my prison bunk and its glorious blankets. I contemplated eating a bowl of raisin bran and taking a hot shower before going to bed.
Finally, he started reading names in D-unit. Started at 1-tier. Nice, I thought. I’m on 2, so I should be back in the cell in a few minutes. He read the names in order, off the cell roster. Both guys in 101, then 102…
But after reading the names in 110, he skipped to 112. My buddy Frank and his cellie, Oxie, live in 111. Frank looked at me and said, “Oh, no.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll tell him he skipped you guys when he calls me.”
Then he skipped my buddy Austin’s name. He lives three cells down from me. Brandon, my good friend and nextdoor neighbor, stood blank in the face as his name was also skipped.
Then Sgt. McGrady started in on 3-tier names. He had skipped mine, too.
I stood there, dumbfounded, as the group of remaining prisoners dwindled, shrinking one at a time. As McGrady worked his way toward the end of 4-tier names, I surveyed who was left behind. All the Surenos, a few Bloods (who I heard were also involved), a few of my neighbors, and me. Maybe twenty in all.
As the final name from 4-tier was called, about two dozen armed CERT guards filed into the gym. A couple were carrying boxes of steel restraints. A tableau I could not yet anchor to reality.
“When your name and DOC number is called,” McGrady said, “Step over there, toward these officers.”
The reading of each new name brought a ripple of cold detachment, as if my nerves were disconnecting. In prison you became an amateur fortuneteller, able to divine likely outcomes by assessing the facts and surrounding a given a situation. You develop this over time because, usually, a fundamental law of prison is predictability. If I do X, I can expect Y to happen. But now, Y was definitely happening, and I didn’t do X. The dissonance was deafening.
When I heard my name and DOC number, my heart flattened against my ribs. I looked straight ahead at nothing and crossed the twenty feet of distance between us and them. Two guards seized me by the arms. Cut the zip-ties and cuffed my hands behind my back. Sat me on the floor, facing the wall. Junebug, my ever-smiling tower of a neighbor who often needs to have jokes explained to him, was cuffed and seated next to me. He was not smiling.
“Where we going, Steve?”
“We’re going to the hole, Big Buddy.”
“What for? We didn’t do anything.”
“I know,” I said, “but they think we did.”
“What’s gonna happen to us?”
“They’re going to put us under investigation, on ad-seg.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
I told Junebug to follow my lead where we get to the hole, that I’d help him build a defense. Two guards grabbed me beneath the arms and lifted me to my feet. Walked me out the door opposite the one leading back to the unit. Opened a hatch in the side of a transport wagon. Inside, a space about the size of an average toolbox. They told me to make myself fit, and “guided” me into the tiny steel box and slammed the hatch, leaving me wedged into total darkness. I have not seen Junebug since.
I’ve been in the hole for fifteen days now. Junebug, I’m told, is in another of the dozens of pods in this concrete man-hive called IMU (Intensive Management Unit). Of the twenty prisoners accused of being involved in the riot, fourteen are in this pod. Of those fourteen, six (including myself) had no involvement whatsoever.
All six of us went outside for the bogus fire drill prior to the riot. All six of us also spoke directly to staff, making us memorable to them.
Until yesterday, we were on “ad-seg quarantine” (administrative segregation), which meant that we each left our cell three times per week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) for forty minutes. One twenty-minute shower, one twenty-minute phone call. It also meant the guards had to wear extra PPE (personal protective equipment - gowns, face shields, etc…) and that medical staff came around three to four times a day to scan our complete temperature through the cuff port. They seemed to do this whenever they thought the most prisoners would be trying to sleep.
I began building my defense the morning I arrived here, after taking a two-hour nap. I requested witness statements be sent to five of my neighbors and Tim, my cellie. My neighbors all simply wrote the truth, which substantiates my claim of innocence (I’ve requested twice that a statement be sent to Tim, but they’ve yet to do it.). I wrote a letter, to the CPM, detailing my version of events. And, for the first time in my prison career, I sent a kite to IU and asked to be interviewed.
The lead investigator on this incident is a guy named La Munyon. He was a sergeant in the Reformatory for years, transferring to IIU a year or so ago. He has known me for a decade. I sent the kite to him.
Two guards came to my cell first, Thursday morning, eight days after the event. One of them said, “You have a visit.” They walked me down several corridors with brightly colored travel-lines on the floor and locked me in an attorney visit booth. Through glass visiting, but with a pass-slot for paperwork.
La Munyon sat down but on the other side of the glass.
“I got your kite, but I would have pulled you first anyway. Out of all the names on this list, yours surprised me the most.”
He asked for my version of events, so I told him where I was, what little I saw, etc. Again, I skirted identifying details, but he asked me if the guys running down 2-tier were Surenos. I just looked at him.
“I’ve already gotten a bunch of reports that it was mainly the Surenos involved,” La Munyon said. “Didn’t take a lot of investigative prowess for me to get there on my own, anyway. Their main O.G. dropped his ID in the middle of the officer station they destroyed.”
He said he already knew that several uninvolved guys had gotten roped in on this, and that his job was to sort everyone out. At the end of our visit, he said that he still had a lot of people to interview, but if what I’d told him pans out, I had nothing to worry about. He has since interviewed in this pod.
Due to public outcry, litigation, and increased media coverage owing to the Monroe riot, Governor Jay Inslee decided to release about one thousand Washington prisoners. The first window of consideration was for prisoners with less than seventy-five days left on sentences for non-violent crimes.
On Sunday, April 19th, eleven days after the riot, staff came into this pod and told three prisoners they were being released. That day. They asked for the phone numbers of those who would be picking them up, and what size sweats they wanted for release clothes. Two were older, black prisoners who were uninvolved.
One had seventy-two days left, the other had twenty-nine. The third prisoner was one of the two Surenos who ran down 2-tier waving a fire extinguisher. In prison for delivery of a controlled substance, he had thirty-seven days left.
Update: The riot at Monroe Correctional Complex occurred on April 8, 2020. Steve Bartholomew currently remains in Administration Segregation, despite being a non-participant.
|Steve Bartholomew 978300|
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272