Letter about pierce county jail

The Pierce County Jail is located in Tacoma. It consists of two buildings and holds approximately 1,700 people. The following letter, written on April 20 by someone with a loved one incarcerated there, recounts how the jail has–and has not–responded to the pandemic. It also describes a hunger strike that detainees at the jail launched as a result of the poor conditions.

Trapped, not secluded

A friend of mine incarcerated in Tacoma’s Pierce County Jail did not learn about the Covid19 virus from prison officials, who told him nothing.  He had to learn about it from his mother, who told him about the epidemic during a phone call in March.  Visits have apparently been cancelled since February, and only outgoing calls are possible. 

My friend spends 17 hours every day in a 2-person cell.  The cells are gathered in units of 30-40 people.   There is an exercise yard on the roof of the building: four walls, no basketball hoop or pullup bar or any other equipment; just walls and concrete open to the sky.

The other 5-7 hours are spent in a dayroom, which he describes as “about the size of a two or three car garage, with four tables and a TV.”  How many people in it, I ask?  “Twenty or twenty five.  They tell us to do social distancing, but it’s literally impossible.”

“The guards don’t wear masks,” he tells me over the phone.  “They go in and out of the building every day.  If we catch the virus, it will be from them, or from some new inmate.”

How many inmates are coming in these days?  “In a week, maybe six new guys.  That’s pretty low.  They say they’re testing them all when they come in, but we asked one new guy, and they didn’t even check if he had a fever.”

“The nurses aren’t wearing masks either.  There are no doctors here, no dentist.  I have a hole in my tooth, I’m trying to get help, the nurse told me ‘drink more water’.  Last week they said they were bringing a dentist in, but it never happened. They say they’re saving all clinic visits for emergencies.  If it’s not an emergency, they don’t want to see you.  There are old guys here, they need checkups. Another guy here has an abcess on his back, he needs help, he wants to get it drained.  The nurse told him ‘Have someone in your unit drain it.’ “

Machines for video family visits have been brought in, but they are not in operation yet. “The machines look brand new but they’re sitting there Not Working Until Further Notice.  And we were supposed to be allowed to get an hour visit twice a week.  Even when these video visits start, they’re going to cost money.  Five dollars for half an hour, so ten dollars for that hour that should be free. What the hell, now we have to pay?  Why not have regular visits and give people masks?”

My friend has to pay for this limited-time phone call to me.  Inmates only have money if someone outside puts money in their prison account, what is called their “books”.

“My belief about this system is, whenever they start making money off someone, they never go back,” he tells me.  “At the commissary, you know Ritz crackers?  Two sleeves of them – the sleeves inside a box?  Two sleeves of them costs 6 dollars.  A stick of dollar-store deodorant costs 10 dollars.  Everything costs money here and costs a lot. What makes them money won’t ever go back to regular.”

“We went on hunger strike last week for a couple days.  They weren’t giving us masks, they weren’t giving any information about the virus.  We ask what’s going on, they won’t tell us.  The guards just say ‘You guys asked for this.’

It’s like revenge.”

After the hunger strike, inmates were issued masks.  The lack of information continues. “They did bring a thermometer to one new guy in our unit.  About one minute later, they took him out.  Now they moved our whole unit, about 30 people, to another part of the prison.  It’s probably for them to clean and disinfect, which is good, but when we ask what it’s about, the guards still won’t tell us.  ‘We’re looking for something’ is all they say.”

“We watch the news on TV.  It’s all about the deaths. We saw what was happening up at Monroe.  After our hunger strike, we were watching the news and they started interviewing someone from Pierce County. When that happened, the guards turned the TV off.”

“Yes, if they would move some people out of the prison, there would be more space and we’d have a better chance.  But other than that, we’re stuck.  And no court dates.  No right to a speedy trial these days.  None of us has a court date.”

Updates from the University of Washington Bothell's Project on Mass Incarceration in Washington State