A few days before he was scheduled to be released from the state prison in Monroe, Longview resident Richard Dugger had a sore throat that lasted a single night. He told prison officers about the symptom, but because it was so light, even he figured it could have just been from a fan blowing in his face.
Dugger, 47, was released on April 19 under a state COVID-19 spacing order, just two days before his time would be up anyway. He rode to Longview, but concerned that he was sick, he went to St. John Medical Center that very day, where he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Since then, he has been living at a sober house in Longview, feeling healthy and asymptomatic. But Dugger said in an interview Friday that he’s concerned for the other inmates who might have the virus and not realize it. And he believes the prison should have taken the virus more seriously, such as by testing inmates like him before they were released.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) has reported nine staff and 16 inmates have tested positive at the Monroe Correctional Complex as of May 8, but Dugger fears the actual number of cases is far higher.
“I lived through it. I was fine, but when it gets to the wrong guy, he’s dead, if he has the wrong health conditions,” Dugger said Friday. “Some of them just think they’re strung out. Some of them think they just got a cold. ... (And) a lot of guys just ain’t going to sick hall.”
Without naming him, Lewis County prosecutor Jonathan Meyer last month first revealed Dugger’s experience, and local officials confirmed he was one of Cowlitz County’s positive cases, which now total 65.
Dugger this week agreed to an interview to voice his concerns about other inmates and the greater community. He’d been serving time since October for drug possession, and his rap sheet also includes convictions for extortion, assault and theft. So he acknowledges some people might be loath to extend sympathy.
But “even if I was a piece of s*** and didn’t deserve to live, what about my mom?” Dugger asked. “What about all these people in (the clean house), when they leave, if they get it and don’t know? All the people that reckon I don’t deserve to live because I’ve got a criminal record, what about their families that don’t feel that way and want to go out and play basketball at the park?”
That’s why he went straight to St. John after his release, Dugger said: “I could have brought it to Cowlitz County. I know a lot of people. And a lot of guys wouldn’t care enough to go do that, even if they knew they had it.”
Dugger suspects he got sick when he and about 300 other inmates were held in a gym after a group of inmates staged an April 8 demonstration at the facility over COVID-19 concerns.
In a press release, DOC said more than 100 minimum security inmates staged the demonstration and didn’t stop when confronted by officers verbally and with pepper spray and rubber pellets. No one was injured, and the incident was spurred by the COVID-19 positive tests results of six inmates, DOC said.
Dugger said he and the other inmates on his cell block floor weren’t involved in the protest, and they followed officer instructions to come out of their cells and lie down on the ground in the yard.
“They said, ‘Anybody that doesn’t want to be a part of this, come out now,’ “ Dugger recalled. “So everybody on my tier did.”
But later, officers brought everyone together in the gym, Dugger said, mixing the quarantined and non-quarantined populations.
“For the safety of all incarcerated individuals in the units at the Minimum Security Unit during the disturbance, all incarcerated individuals were evacuated and placed in the gym and yard,” DOC spokesperson Susan Biller said in an e-mail. “Based on the number of incarcerated individuals, the gym and yard locations were used for evacuation purposes as they were large enough to contain the number of incarcerated individuals.”
Not long after the incident, two other inmates on his floor in his cell block tested positive, Dugger said. He had a sore throat four days before his release date, but it went away after a night.
Officers were performing temperature checks on him and other inmates, but Dugger said he never had a fever during his illness and his vitals always appeared fine. He said there wasn’t any other kind of symptom testing going on, so he wasn’t identified as ill.
“Per DOC Health Services guidance, incarcerated individuals who show symptoms will be tested,” Biller said, including a fever or respiratory problems such as coughing, shortness of breath or sore throat. However, due to federal medical privacy laws, Biller said she couldn’t speak to whether Dugger was tested for the virus.
Possibly compounding the problem, Dugger said inmates who spoke out about feeling sick and tested positive were put into isolation without TV or other privileges.
“Why would you go tell a cop you’re sick and go to the hole? That’s all you’re subjecting yourself to,” he said.
DOC allows inmates to use electronic devices, address books for letter writing and televisions in the isolation units, Biller said.
Dugger is one of several hundred inmates released early under an order from Gov. Jay Inslee, who was himself ordered by the state Supreme Court to take “all necessary steps” to protect people in prisons from the virus. The releases apply only to inmates who would have gotten out by the end of June anyway.
According to DOC COVID-19 guidelines, inmates released while on quarantine status — i.e., asymptomatic but exposed to other patients — are to be provided surgical masks and directed to self-quarantine at their residence for the rest of a 14-day quarantine period.
Dugger was on quarantine status prior to his release and was screened for his temperature and asked about his symptoms at the time he was placed on transport, Biller said. Dugger confirmed he was given a mask when released.
Dugger’s ride from the prison dropped him off in front of his clean house, and the first thing he wanted to do was get checked out at St. John.
“So I walked and grabbed a mountain bike at my mom’s and went to St. John,” he said.
An x-ray showed he had a minor chest infection that could be pneumonia: “And I knew right there, I knew,” Dugger said.
A blood draw and nasal swab confirmed he was indeed COVID-19 positive. His doctor reassured him that his vitals were fine and he just needed to self-isolate. The local health department checked in with him every day, and now, nearly three weeks after his diagnosis, Dugger is still feeling fine and appears to have recovered from the disease.
Releasing inmates early to lower the population was a good plan, Dugger said, but he feels more testing needs to happen.
“The (social) distancing? There’s no way you do it in there. So releasing people so they had some room, yeah, they had to. I don’t know what else they would have done. (But) I think they should have tested people before they get out. ... (And) right now they need to go in there and test everybody, separate the ones that are sick from the ones that ain’t sick, and don’t make that mistake twice of putting them together.”
Right now, Dugger is trying to stay clean and get back to work in the welding industry. He’d hoped to sign up for a welding class at LCC to refresh his skills, but those plans could be complicated by the college’s limited on-campus activity due to the pandemic.
“The game plan’s changed for everybody, you know?”
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