Teamster nurses at WCC - Melissa Johnson (l) and Patty Patterson (r) - are working overtime to keep COVID-19 out of the state prison system.

With the COVID-19 crisis, Teamsters inside our state prison system are making extraordinary efforts to keep our communities healthy and safe.

Upon entering the facilities, everyone – all DOC personnel and inmates – have to be screened for the disease. This puts an additional burden on staff who are already stretched thin.

“We’ve had to quarantine entire buses of inmates entering our prison,” says Patty Patterson, an RN3 at the Washington Correction Center (WCC) in Shelton.

“Our graveyard staff is decimated,” adds fellow nurse, Melissa Johnson. “Of 29 full-time nurses at our facility, 9 are out due to possible COVID exposure. That’s a huge hit.”

The shortage in nursing staff has come with an increased workload. Screening has to be administered to all inmates seeking medical assistance. At WCC, that’s between 50-100 inmates a day. Anyone exhibiting symptoms needs to be put in isolation.

Despite the challenges, medical staff are rising to the occasion. They're covering for each other, putting in lots of overtime and pulling double shifts. 

“We want people to know we’re taking care of their family members,” Patterson said. “As stretched thin as we are, I couldn’t be prouder of our team.”

"I couldn’t be prouder of our team."

The coronavirus pandemic has made things tough on custody staff as well. Brandon Jennings, a Shop Steward at WCC, says he and his fellow officers are doing everything they can to enforce social distancing among the inmates, but it’s a daunting task.

Part of the problem is the constant influx of inmates coming in from the counties to the state system. This has led to crowded cells, with some inmates having to sleep on the floor. “We’re up to 356 inmates in our unit,” Jennings says. “That’s up from 240 at normal capacity.”

Corrections staff are used to dealing with health and security challenges. But keeping such a contagious virus out of the system has added a sense of urgency and a new layer of complexity.

"Our members are stepping up and doing an amazing job," said Michelle Woodrow, President of Teamsters 117. "They're dealing with outside stressors impacting their families - like not having access to daycare or their spouses getting laid off. At the same time, they're showing up to work, supporting each other, and approaching this crisis with the seriousness and professionalism needed to prevent the spread of this disease."

In short order, Teamsters at the DOC have implemented CDC guidelines and are administering a rigorous screening process to slow the spread of COVID-19 in an environment that has the potential to be a breeding ground for the virus.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Jennings says. "We're doing our best to keep the community safe."