NAACP, groups outline steps to curb COVID spread in Delaware prisons

WILMINGTON — Civil rights, labor rights and faith-based organizations sent a letter to Gov. John Carney Monday offering suggestions to address rapidly rising COVID-19 cases within Delaware’s correctional facilities.

The correspondence proposed actions involving the Delaware Department of Correction system to include:

• All DOC employees and contractors be required to test for COVID-19 at least once per week, undergo daily temperature checks, and wear face masks during their entire shift.

• All DOC employees and contractors who test positive be prohibited from returning to work until they have tested negative.

• All inmates and detainees be provided face masks and other necessary PPE.

• Emergency measures be implemented to release as quickly and safely as possible the elderly, those incarcerated for violating technical terms of probation, those scheduled to be released within the next 90 days, and those who committed non-violent offenses and have comorbidities and complex medical needs.

• Parole hearings for all those incarcerated be expedited during this time.

• Emergency measures be implemented to ensure that people released from incarceration have access to enhanced re-entry support to include housing, food, and health care.

On Monday, the DOC reported 466 active COVID-19 cases (about 90% asymptomatic) among offenders. Ninety-three percent of the cases are in James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna and Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington. There were three cases at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown.

The DOC had reported 374 total cases on Dec. 1, none at SCI.

There were 796 recoveries, the DOC said Monday, up from 659 on Dec. 1.

On Dec. 2, positive cases involving correctional and contracted staff at DOC facilities numbered 109, with 228 recoveries. On Dec. 4, there were 97, with 260 recoveries.

The letter was sent by Delaware NAACP State Conference of Branches President Richard Smith, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Greater Dover and Vicinity President the Rev. Theodore Henderson and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Delaware President Melvin Phillips.

Attempts to reach the governor’s office for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

The DOC issued a response Monday that read, in part:

“The NAACP should be reassured that the measures they cite in their letter were implemented before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Delaware, and that in the ensuing months, we have strengthened them with the latest information about the illness. Over the past nine months, they have helped limit the risk of COVID-19 infection and have improved recovery outcomes for those who have tested positive for the virus.

“These measures include universal symptom screenings and temperature checks of all persons entering a prison facility; distribution of face masks to all inmates and staff and mandatory staff face mask-wearing; frequent and ongoing COVID-19 testing of inmates and staff; education about personal hygiene, including frequent hand washing through the CDC’s preferred method of soap and water along with universal access to personal hygiene and other cleaning supplies; isolation and immediate testing of all individuals with COVID-19 symptoms and persons who came into sustained close contact with any COVID-positive individual; and social distancing and limited movement within prison facilities as much as is practical.

“The recent spike in community spread in communities across Delaware demonstrates how susceptible all residents of our state are to this contagious illness. The DOC and its health care provider anticipated that risk early on, and in the first weeks of 2020, even before COVID reached Delaware, we established a comprehensive COVID-19 protocol to initiate screening, cleaning, testing, contact tracing, and treatment to mitigate the risks of infection and spread of the virus …”

The DOC stressed that it has “taken advantage of empty and underused housing units from its historically low prison population to spread out inmates, particularly vulnerable inmates with chronic conditions, and to establish stand-alone COVID-19 Treatment Centers.”

Additionally, according to the DOC, “Inmates receiving treatment for COVID-19 receive DOC-issued personal hygiene items, laundry service, a personal water pitcher with ice and 24-hour care by medical staff.”

The DOC also noted that policies kept the spread from entering its facilities “for months at a time.”

Further information on the DOC’s response to COVID-19 is online at doc.delaware.gov.

According to the letter to Gov. Carney “Moreover, concerns about the likely possibility of a catastrophic surge in COVID-19 cases throughout Delaware correctional facilities have been brought to your attention on several occasions.

“In addition to correspondence issued by the ACLU and other organizations, the NAACP explicitly communicated this concern within its April 15 and April 17, 2020 letters to you and on May 1, 2020, when NAACP executive board members met with you and members of your cabinet as a result of those letters.

“To the extent that these warnings were ignored, we have good reason to consider the failure to take any substantive action as contributory negligence on the part of the State of Delaware …”

Additionally, according to the letter, “We are also troubled to hear that complaints of health services, treatment and protection are not being addressed by those who provide direct oversight to correctional operations. Sensible measures to control the exacerbation of COVID-19 are being taken in just about every industry where there are high concentrations of people in close proximity.

“However, this doesn’t appear to be as evident within Delaware correctional facilities, where thousands of people are living in environments that can be likened to petri dishes for the spread of this contagious and deadly virus.”

The letter closed with, “Public health mitigation efforts that have been proven to curb the spread of COVID-19 throughout correctional facilities nationwide include mandatory use of face masks, increased hand hygiene, extensive and frequent testing, isolating infected individuals, accommodating physical distancing, and releasing inmates who meet certain qualifications.

“The actions proposed herein are in alignment with these proven efforts and are long overdue.

“We urge you to take immediate action in their implementation and look forward to a near future opportunity to discuss this extremely critical and time sensitive matter with you in further detail.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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