In the age of COVID-19, don’t get arrested. Prison isn’t the most comfortable place to be.
It can be dangerous, particularly for correctional officers who have to work in close contact with inmates.
“There is no social distancing,” in prison, either for inmates or correctional officers, said Joshua Wilson, business agent for the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, the union that represents correctional officers.
Wilson spoke in an interview and also before legislators in two hearings earlier this year about working conditions in the prison system. People are under stress, not only from COVID-19 but also overcrowding and shortages of staff.
A reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center planned for next years will open up more space for inmates, but the state must recruit new correctional officers, and recruiting is already a challenge.
Meanwhile, officers aren’t always being given proper protective equipment to protect against the virus, Wilson said in the interview. Two cloth face masks are provided to each officer, but cloth masks are not considered fully effective in stopping transmission of COVID-19.
Some corrections employees considered at risk, like prison medical staff, do get medical-grade masks and face shields but not officers out on the line for the most part, he said. Other state public safety officers, like troopers, do get higher-grade equipment as a matter of routine.
Sarah Gallagher, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said correctional facilities have extra equipment on hand including medical masks and face shields if employees need them.
But Wilson said that’s new, and he hopes the department will follow through because not all of the officers have been able to get proper equipment.
A key problem, however, is that the DOC really doesn’t know the full extent of infections in prisons because there’s no testing of the general population. People coming into the prisons are being tested as of July 1, and Wilson credits the corrections department for that. But because there’s no widespread testing of the general prison population it means the DOC does not really know how widely the virus has spread, he said.
About 4,500 people are typically incarcerated in Alaska at any given time and about 600 new people a day enter jails or prisons around the state. Since July 1, when the testing of new entrants stated, 40 have had positive test results (meaning they are infected with the virus). They are isolated.
However, positives have also shown up in the general prison population, confirmed by tests after people showed symptoms. These are inmates who have been in prison for a long time, Wilson said. “They were infected by others already in the system. We don’t know how they got it or who from,” he said.
Gallagher, speaking for the department, said it’s not unusual for the original source of an infection to go undetected.
Of the long-term inmates that tested positive, “no additional positive cases were identified,” she said. She credited that to virus containment strategies put in place earlier this year.
However, Wilson said COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at multiple prisons – Goose Creek, Mat-Su, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Lemon Creek in Juneau, either among the incoming new inmates or those already there.
Health experts say many who are infected and are capable of spreading the virus don’t show symptoms, so the fact that numbers of inmates show no symptoms doesn’t mean the virus isn’t in the population.
The concern over an unknown extent of infections makes the lack of a uniform policy on protective equipment more troublesome for correctional officers. “People can’t take the proper precautions if they are not being given protective equipment and inmates they work with are not being tested,” he said. The correctional officers’ association has asked for more widespread testing, but this is not being done, Wilson said.
Gallagher said there have been cases where population-wide testing has been done at specific facilities, such as two rounds of testing all inmates at Lemon Creek, in Juneau, after several staff members tested positive. At Goose Creek 126 inmates were tested after “contact tracing” established they had contact with someone who tested positive.
In Bethel, 41 inmates were tested after three of the staff had positive test results.
Some health provider groups have offered to do free testing of inmates – Wilson cited an offer from Norton Sound Health Corporation to test inmates at the Anvil Mountain Correctional Facility in Nome – but the offers were turned down by the department.
Speaking for the DOC, Gallagher said at the time there were no symptoms being shown among Anvil Mountain inmates, and it was because of this that the offer was turned down.
“According to CDC (U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines there was not a reason for broad-based testing at that time,” she said.
Meanwhile, what is adding more stress to the system is a chronic shortage of correctional officers that results in mandatory overtime, which not only raises costs but is badly damaging to morale. The rising numbers of inmates in prison, a result of changes in criminal laws by the Legislature, aggravates this.
“The DOC’s own 2016 staffing study indicates that a number of facilities are currently operating with staffing levels insufficient to meet basic security operational requirements,” Wilson told a legislative committee earlier this year.
“Forced overtime leads to rolling lockdowns and officer burnout.”
COVID-19 has complicated this because when officers are sent home after contact (with positive cases) facilities can be dangerously understaffed.
Turnover among correctional officers is running at about 120 a year, and with total staffing at about 900 this is a recipe for disaster. The DOC has lost 73 correctional officers so far this year, Wilson said.
Gallagher said the department is making progress in recruiting. “In January there were approximately 90 correctional officer vacancies, compared with 49 vacancies today,” she said.
The department was given $400,000 in funding by the Legislature for a new Correctional OfficerRecruitment Unit, but it has not yet been formed. The money became available on July 1 when the FY 2021 fiscal year budget became effective.
“These positions are being finalized (through the state Division of Personnel) and are expected to be posted on (a state webpage) Workplace Alaska soon,” Gallagher said.
Despite the problems, Wilson said “Correctional officers continue to perform their duty with dedication and courage. Other (workers) may not go to work out of fear of getting the COVID-19. Correctional officers go to work knowing they will get it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the planned reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center in 2021 will ease some prison overcrowding. The state has awarded a $2.2 million contract to Roger Hickel Contracting to refurbish the facility, which was closed in 2016.
Palmer previously operated as a minimum to medium security facility, but the DOC can’t yet say the level of security when it reopens. Goose Creek is a medium-security prison.