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Inside Olympia – State Prisons

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April 15, 2021

This week host Austin Jenkins sits down with two guests who are directly involved in state prisons: Steve Sinclair, who is retiring as secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections after four years at the helm, and Joanna Carns, the director of the recently created state Office of Corrections Ombuds.

Sinclair, fresh out of the armed services, joined the “DOC” as it’s called in 1988 as a guard at the Walla Walla Penitentiary. As he acknowledges in the interview, at that time he had no idea he would some day lead the agency that manages state prisons.

In his four years in charge of DOC, Sinclair has focused on rehabilitation and preparing inmates to successfully reenter the community post-incarceration. He believes, in general, we imprison too many people in the United States.

Sinclair defends DOC against criticism for how the state prison system responded to COVID. Over a dozen prisoners and/or staff have died, which Sinclair calls sad but inevitable during COVID, and points out Washington prisons are among the lowest in the nation for COVID deaths.

An unexpected result of COVID? The state’s prison population, which was in the 18,000s in 2018, is the lowest Sinclair has seen it in his career: in the 13,000s. The “pipeline” of people coming to state prisons from county jails has largely dried up during COVID.

Sinclair is retiring from DOC but expects to remain active in corrections issues in the U.S.

Joanna Carns is the first director of the Washington Office of Corrections Ombuds, which was formed in 2018. The “OCO” is an independent agency under the governor whose job is to listen to the concerns of prisoners and their families and advocate for positive changes in state prisons.

The OCO recently released a report chronicling the lack of timely diagnosis and treatment for inmates with cancer, and last year wrote another report critical of the state prison system’s response to COVID.

When discussing medical care in prisons, both Carns and Sinclair point to an outdated system that still relies on paper records. Sinclair says that in order to provide care equivalent to what’s available “on the outside,” the prison system needs a comparable investment in medical tools and technology.

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