Coronavirus Cases Rise Sharply In Yakima County Jail

The Yakima County Jail is facing a rising COVID-19 case count as of July 2020. CREDIT: Google Maps
The Yakima County Jail is facing a rising COVID-19 case count as of July 2020. CREDIT: Google Maps

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BY ASHLEY HIRUKO / KUOW

Angel Pacheco, an inmate at the Yakima County jail in eastern Washington, passed out from a 105-degree fever on July 3.

According to his mother Malissa Sobieski, Pacheco was taken to Yakima Memorial hospital, where he was tested for the coronavirus. When he returned to the jail, he was put in a padded room.

Pacheco, 25, has a hole in his heart, and high blood pressure, which makes him especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. He’s been at the Yakima County jail since October 2019, where he has been awaiting his trial for federal gun and drug charges.

Inside the Yakima County jail, inmates say there’s no social distancing, that corrections officers don’t always wear masks, and that inmates with fevers have to pay for Tylenol, but don’t have the money.

Even basic hygiene expectations aren’t always met.

Pacheco went without hot water or even a shower. He was confined for three days, with no way to reach his family or his lawyer.

When his coronavirus test results came back positive, it likely wasn’t a surprise to officials there.

The first person in the Yakima County jail tested positive for coronavirus in May — an inmate who transferred to the Yakima County jail from the city jail in Sunnyside, a rural city located 35 miles southeast of Yakima.

On July 6, the jail reported that 83 inmates had caught the virus, and this number continues to grow.

The quick spread within the county jail mimics the virus growth outside the confines of the corrections building, in Yakima County.

As it stands, Yakima County has the second highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Washington state, coming second only to King County. About 8,122  people have been inflicted with the coronavirus in Yakima County as of July 14, according to the Washington State Department of Health. For context, that’s more than half the total number of cases reported in South Korea.

Within the jail, a 1,000-bed facility, the inmate population currently hovers at about 420 inmates, down from an average of 920 inmates, according to the Yakima County Department of Corrections.

“Our population is down more than half from what it was several months ago,” said Chief Jeremy Welch, of the Yakima County Department of Corrections, by email. “Any jail social distancing can be a challenge. However, due to our reduced population, they are able to remain six feet apart in the units.”

Some of these inmates are serving short-term sentences. Forty-four inmates are confined in the jail under a federal hold. Most are awaiting trial and haven’t posted bail, an examination of the jail roster shows.

On March 18, civil and criminal jury trials were suspended in Washington state because of the coronavirus pandemic. The state allowed some proceedings, which don’t require a jury, to resume on June 1.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled on June 18, that jury trials could resume across the state this week.

Angel Pacheco was finally able to call his wife and daughters on July 6. “That was because he was beating on the door until someone listened to him,” Sobieski, his mother said.

“I thought losing my husband was bad, I couldn’t imagine losing one of my kids,” said Sobieski, whose husband died four years ago in 2016. “Not to something like this, something that can be taken care of.”

Before the padded room, Pacheco was housed in Annex C of the jail, a dorm-style pod with a common area in the center and bunks where inmates slept off to the side. He later ended up in the God Pod, a voluntary faith-based unit with an open tank and 24 bunks.

However, within the jail, inmates weren’t afforded the luxury of the space needed to properly social distance, they said. And inmate concerns of the virus early on appear to have been shrugged off by corrections officers.

Unlike Washington state prisons, like the Coyote Ridge Corrections center in eastern Washington, where an outbreak has infected 225 inmates and 54 staff as of July 8, the Yakima County jail is not overseen by the state Department of Corrections. In fact, the state has limited authority over this jail.

The Washington State Corrections Standards Board used to develop standards for, and collected data from, jails and prisons in the state. But it was disbanded by the Washington State Legislature in 1987, and counties were tasked with developing their own standards.

For inmates who have a grievance, they can submit a kite, a written request for something. But these requests can be denied by the jail, and conditions remain the same.

Before the outbreak of coronavirus at the Yakima County jail, 14 inmates there escaped after they broke through a fire door and jumped over a fence on March 23.

“They decided to break down the door and leave, despite the governor’s shelter in place or stay-at-home order. Apparently they didn’t want to do that,” Bob Udell, Yakima County Sheriff said, from behind his desk in a video posted to social media.

Officials later reported that the inmates who escaped, and were later found, were afraid of catching COVID-19 from inside the jail.

Pacheco was afraid then too. He tried to distance himself from corrections officers and other inmates. His mother suggested he get cleaning supplies, to help sanitize his cell and prevent Pacheco from getting COVID-19.

“(Corrections officers) literally laughed at him when he asked for cleaning supplies and told him that that the COVID-19 was not that serious. That he needed to calm down,” Sobieski said.

Welch, who helps to oversee the jail, said the Yakima department of corrections is taking precautions, that inmates are given cleaning gear several times a day, and that the department has issued an order, requiring jail staff to wear masks.

He said all inma