Prisons, so far, avoiding rapid COVID spread
Delaware inmates will not be permitted to wear protective masks and top state officials say an emergency prisoner release will not be necessary as the correction system fights a COVID-19 outbreak at its largest prison.
Over the past week, Delaware Online/The News Journal has talked to several inmates, their families and correctional officers inside Delaware’s prisons, along with state officials.
Collectively, their comments show a prison system actively changing to grapple with the everyday necessities of feeding, housing and allowing recreation for thousands while trying to hunt for an invisible viral killer.
Inmates say they feel helpless lacking masks and what they feel is adequate cleaning supplies. They fear it is impossible to safely distance themselves from the changing cast of officers coming in and out of the prison every day, not to mention their fellow inmates.
“We all use the same phone, same showers, the same sink, same everything,” said one inmate who asked to remain anonymous fearing retribution from corrections officials. “All these people on the pod together. You can’t distance.”
The first correctional officer working in Delaware’s prisons tested positive April 3. So far, 31 cases have been identified in state prisons.
That includes 15 employees and three contractors at seven facilities. It also includes 13 inmates at only two facilities.
“Pretty remarkable, right?” said Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis on Wednesday. “Other states have had dozens and hundreds and thousands.”
Nationally, correction systems have struggled with the virus. Some big-city prisons have been labeled hotspots that have spread the illness into the local community through those moving in and out of the system.
Right now, the local fight is at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.
A total of 12 inmates and nine staffers there have tested positive in Delaware’s largest prison where 1,600 inmates are held. It’s where correction officials have conducted the bulk of COVID-19 tests.
All inmates interviewed had something to say about masks.
“Some officers are wearing masks, some are not,” one Vaughn inmate said, echoing a common complaint.
Last week, some said officers at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution south of Wilmington were told not to wear masks for fear of scaring the inmates. Correction officials did not deny this but said the situation has evolved.
DeMatteis said all officers working in proximity to inmates were required as of last week to wear a mask.
“They are doing it,” she said.
Inmates said officers have more consistently been wearing masks, but sometimes do not.
“There was just an officer that left my tier that wasn’t wearing a mask,” one Vaughn inmate said Tuesday.
Inmates said they want to cover their own faces but have been threatened with a writeup.
DeMatteis said inmates that work in Vaughn’s prison infirmary, those with health problems themselves and some other workers are given masks.
Some inmates said they have jobs in which they contact dozens of prisoners a day, primarily in food service, and have had no mask.
Some have said some inmates were fired from their food service jobs for insisting on wearing a mask to serve inmates. Last week, correction officials said this claim was false.
Makeshift masks are banned for security reasons, DeMatteis said.
“It is a security threat for an officer not to see an inmates’ face,” she said. “Think of the contraband they could hide.”
She said masks are not necessary for inmates because the threat is from officers coming in from the outside, officers that are ordered to wear masks. She said there is “no evidence” COVID-19 has spread beyond the one housing unit at Vaughn where positive cases have been found.
Inmates said the mask situation at Vaughn is grating because inmates in the prison’s workshop are producing some 100 masks a day for officers and first responders at an hourly rate between 25 cents and $2 depending on seniority.
“So we are mass-producing masks, but we can’t have any?” one inmate said. “That isn’t right.”
Others are concerned that their recreation time requires them to be among groups larger than the 10-people limit the governor set for public gatherings.
“I’m just concerned with my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of individuals on both of this tier, said Vaughn inmate Tyeem Roane. “You have people that have preexisting conditions, you got people with cancer ,with HIV and diabetes on this tier.”
He said recreation regularly happens on the tier, which is essentially a narrow hall of more than a dozen cells in which two prisoners bunk together. Some play cards, some use communal tablets, some work out, others talk to each other. They are always close, he said.
“It is impossible to practice social distancing unless you stay in the cell,” he said.
DeMatteis said the logistics of allowing recreation at a prison like Vaughn require that sometimes more than 10 are out of their cells together and it is up to inmates to follow directions on distancing.
She said movement within the prisons has been greatly reduced. Officials shut down all in-person counseling and education.
Prison officials have virtual programming running at work release facilities, but are still working on the logistics of having that available in prisons. For some, access to programming may be the only thing keeping them in prison.
Staffers required for security and health in the prison are screened for COVID symptoms before entering the building. She said facilities have been cleaning more aggressively.
Inmates at Vaughn offered differing descriptions about what cleaning supplies are available. Some said a cleaning solution is available during recreation to clean their cells. Others said they have to use hand soap from the commissary.
Some said officers bleach common areas daily. Others said that doesn’t always happen.
DeMatteis said the prisons reek of bleach.
“Inmates are going to complain about anything and everything, but the reality is those cleaning protocols are as intense as anything you’d see in a public place,” DeMatteis said.
Tests and staffing
DeMatteis said their work is preventing the spread of the virus within Vaughn and keeping it out of the prison population elsewhere.
As of now, Vaughn is the only prison where inmates have tested positive. The only other inmate case is a prisoner at the Sussex Community Corrections Center near Georgetown, a work-release facility. That was reported Tuesday.
The virus can be present in and spread by those who do not have symptoms, so large-scale testing is the only way to know its reach.
DeMatteis said proactive testing at Vaughn is making a difference.
As of now, 76 inmates have received test results, about 1% of Delaware’s total prison population.
Most of those came from a wave of 45 tests in the housing unit where all the inmates who tested positive at Vaughn are housed.
The department is waiting on results from another batch of 49 tests from those on a nearby housing unit that shares recreation space with the building where the first positives were located, DeMatteis said Wednesday.
Those who were housed with inmates who tested positive were isolated in their own tier. Those who tested positive are isolated in a separate building.
Inmates, officers and pretty much everyone in the world are hoping for more tests.
“They are not testing us,” one Vaughn inmate said. “We want to know who got something.”
Proactive testing will take place at other facilities and other parts of Vaughn when a positive test occurs from an inmate showing symptoms, DeMatteis said.
As of now, officers are not being proactively tested. Officers that show symptoms are quarantined for 14 days and tested, DeMatteis said.
Officers who report more than 10 minutes of close interaction with an officer that tests positive are quarantined for seven days before returning to work, DeMatteis confirmed.
As of Wednesday, 48 of the system’s 1,750 officers are self-isolating, correction officials said. About 20 have been tested by their doctors.
Staffing in Delaware prisons has been closely watched for years with the system racking up tens of millions in officer overtime in recent years.
DeMatteis said the prisons are ahead of that now and overtime requirements of officers have “never been this low.’ She said the staffing situation is “manageable.”
“Currently, we are in good shape but we will be paying close attention to what happens in the next week or so,” said Geoffrey Klopp, who leads the union representing correctional officers.
Emergency prisoner releases?
Some have argued that Delaware should reduce its prison population at an emergency pace to both move inmates with health complications out of potential harm and ease the strain on correction workers.
Prisons around the country, both state and federal, have sought to thin their inmate population. Some have set up special committees to review emergency release petitions.
On Monday, Carney, who has exercised various emergency powers since the outbreak, said, “we don’t think (releasing prisoners) is necessary.”
He said Delaware has reduced its prison and work release population from 6,500 people in the 1990s to 4,600 today.
“There’s more room to spread the inmates out,” Carney said. “There are facilities where we can quarantine and isolate inmates who are COVID-19 positive.”
Regardless of the available capacity, advocates say prisons are still highly susceptible to viral spread because contact among inmates and officers is unavoidable. Healthcare in Delaware prisons has been frequently criticized in court in recent years.
“It is going to be a death sentence once it spreads,” said one person who has a spouse in a work-release facility. “I’m more worried about them in there than I am out on the streets.”
Some people have been freed. About 64 have been released from imprisonment for failure to pay child support, DeMatteis said.
Brendan O’Neill, chief defender at the Office of Defense Services, said public defenders under him have been successful in reducing bail for some to allow them to be free for now. Mat Marshall, a spokesman for Attorney General Kathy Jennings, said his office has cooperated in that.
The population of inmates awaiting trial is around 650, down 20 percent in the past month.
But some want to see the state work with inmates who are already serving a sentence, have little time left and have health complications.
In March, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and the Coalition for Smart Justice wrote Carney calling for him to order the release of certain groups.
Those include inmates scheduled for release within two years who have health vulnerabilities. It also includes any inmate whose sentence would end in six months and anyone imprisoned because of a technical violation of probation.
FIRST PRISONER DEATH
4/18 NOTE: The state reported late Friday that a prisoner at Vaughan Correctional Center died of COVID-19 related causes Thursday despite several previous negative test results.