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Apparently COVID-19-linked "disturbance" hits Seattle area prison

Monroe, Washington — Law enforcement agencies responded to the Monroe Corrections Complex Wednesday evening to help quell what a Washington State Patrol spokesperson called a large "disturbance" among the inmates. State prison officials said it's believed the trouble was sparked by word that six inmates had tested positive for COVID-19.

A couple of hundred inmates started threatening to set fires and possibly take corrections officers hostage, the spokesperson told The Seattle Times. State and local police arrived at the prison just after 7 p.m., State Trooper Heather Axtman said.

Two inmates at the Monroe prison described the tense unfolding situation in electronic messages to the Times. One called it "off the hook," saying corrections officers had "these grenades that shoot pellets to control what the hell is going on," apparently referring to explosive devices that shoot out small projectiles, also known as sting balls.

Another man said: "It's bad over here again. People are starting to run outdoors, throw food and all."

The Washington State Department of Corrections said about 100 prisoners began engaging in "a demonstration" in the recreation yard at about 6 p.m. and at one point, fire extinguishers were set off in two housing units in the minimum security area that gave "an appearance of smoke from the exterior."

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Scene on outskirts of Monroe Corrections Complex in Monroe, Washington, outside Seattle, during inmate demonstration on night of April 8, 2020. Inmates were disturbed when they learned six had tested positive for COVID-19, authorities said. KIRO-TV

Inmates were refusing to move, reports CBS Seattle affiliate KIRO-TV.

One woman told the station her fiance feels exposed to coronavirus inside--and the demonstration was fueled by panic.

The department said authorities used pepper spray and sting balls and eventually brought things under control, adding that no one was hurt, the housing units were "fully evacuated" and the "facility is on restricted movement."

The department said, "It is believed at this time that the incident was caused by recent positive test results of COVID-19 among six men within the Minimum Security Unit." Officials said five staff members also tested positive.

Inmates and families of those confined at the unit have raised alarms, saying inmates are vulnerable as they share living and recreations spaces, making it difficult to practice social distancing recommended by public-health officials.

Nick Straley, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, on Wednesday night said the organization will file an emergency motion Thursday on behalf of the inmates with the state Supreme Court asking for immediate action to address the DOCs' "inadequate COVID-19 response" at the Monroe prison.

Monroe is a city about 30 miles northeast of Seattle.

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