by Jacob Barrett
On September 9, 2022, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) levied an $84,000 fine against the state Department of Corrections (DOC) for safety violations at a state prison that was the epicenter of the state’s largest tuberculosis outbreak in 20 years.
L&I issued the fine after receiving complaints following an April 2022 outbreak of the highly contagious respiratory disease. By May 2022, the state had 70 confirmed TB cases, at least 25 traced to Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) in Aberdeen. DOC did not say if any prison guards were diagnosed with TB, but it reported 23 prisoner infections, plus two more among people recently released from the prison.
DOC said it “faced an unprecedented situation this spring as result of both the SCCC tuberculosis outbreak and the surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.” DOC Chief Science Officer Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett also blamed the pandemic, saying it “has likely contributed to the rise in cases and the outbreak in at least one correctional facility.”
Closing ranks with prison officials, the state Department of Health (DOH) noted that “widespread disruptions” in health care due to COVID-19, as well as misdiagnoses — COVID-19 and TB have similar symptoms, including coughing, fever, chest pains, weight loss, night sweats, and tiredness — likely led to the increase in TB cases.
But the L&I inspection found that SCCC guards never received initial nor annual “fit” testing for their N-95 respirators, without which there was no guarantee that the safety equipment was properly functioning. An infectious disease expert at the University of Washington who used to work in prisons, Dr. Marc Stern, saidthe DOC outbreak gave him “goosebumps.”
“Not only are you worried about people who have the infection,” he said, “but once one person has it there is always a risk others do too.”
DOH reported 199 TB cases in the state in 2021, an increase of 22% from 2020. Globally, TB has a fatality rate between 7% and 35%.
The $84,000 fine will go into a workers’ compensation fund for guards and their families who are injured or die from the disease. Prisoners are not eligible to recover any of the money. The fine follows another issued by L&I on December 17, 2021, ordering DOC to pay $60,000 for “willful, serious” workplace safety rule violations related to COVID-19 social distancing and masking requirements at SCCC.
That resulted from an L&I investigation that found SCCC employees continued to flaunt COVID-19 mitigation rules, in violation of WAC 296-800-11005, after an earlier fine of $9,000 was levied in June 2021. No DOC prison has suffered more prisoner deaths to the disease than SCCC. After the second fine, six employees were subjected to disciplinary investigations, according to DOC spokeswoman Rachel Ericson.
Sources: AP News, Daily Mail, KIRO, The Olympian, Seattle Times
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login