Prison health: Are Delaware inmates safe from COVID?

The Sussex Correctional Institution building where inmates with COVID are housed. Submitted photo/Delaware Department of Correction

DOVER — COVID-19 has unquestionably impacted the entire country, but some places have been proven to be hot spots. And not just specific geographic locations — in particular, coronavirus has devastated nursing homes, food processing plants and prisons over the past five-plus months.

While much has been written and said about the wave of fatalities COVID has caused in long-term care facilities, in most circles significantly less attention has been paid to correctional centers.

The Delaware Department of Correction has reported 511 cases involving inmates and 158 involving staff. Per the agency, 104 employees and 415 offenders have recovered, while eight inmates have died from complications relating to the virus. Seven of those eight had serious underlying health issues.

While very few would claim correctional officers and others working in the prison system have it easy, there’s an obvious difference between them and inmates: Employees get to go home at the end of the day.

With hundreds or even thousands of inmates packed in one building, often in close proximity to others all day every day, some advocates have raised concerns about the health of prisoners.

A report released a month ago by the American Civil Liberties Union was highly critical of actions taken by states to protect inmates. No state scored higher than a D- in the findings, and Delaware was among the 12 that received an F.

Criteria used by the ACLU included whether states released some inmates, provided sufficient personal protective equipment to offenders and guards and regularly shared data on the virus’ impact on their prisons.

Delaware scored poorly in most of the categories, although the ACLU did commend the state for providing COVID statistics by race upon request.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Correction announced a major outbreak at the Sussex Correctional Institution.

Though some inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center tested positive in April in the first large-scale spread of the virus announced in the prison system, the SCI case involved significantly more people. All 973 inmates there were tested, with about 320 coming back positive.

“This infectious disease predominately hit three open dormitory-style housing units at SCI. While the number of inmates who have tested positive at SCI is a big number, 90% of the inmates have no symptoms,” Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said. “Our proactive testing is working to identify inmates and officers who may be silent spreaders of the virus.

“We have isolated the inmates with the illness in our COVID-19 Treatment Centers where they are receiving round-the-clock monitoring and care by medical professionals. We are taking extraordinary measures to protect and treat our inmates and staff and reduce the risk of new infections, including unprecedented relocation of inmates to different housing units at SCI and extensive specialized decontamination cleanings to contain further spread of the virus.”

Ten days later, the agency said nearly three-quarters of those inmates have already recovered.

Safety measures

In an interview last week, Ms. DeMatteis highlighted measures the department has taken to keep people safe. Visitations and work release were suspended for months, and all people who enter, including employees, have their temperatures checked beforehand. The facilities are cleaned frequently, to the point where they “reek of bleach,” Ms. DeMatteis said.

Correctional officers have masks, as does every inmate, she said.

She noted the state went six weeks without an inmate testing positive and had not had any cases at SCI since March.

“They were doing something right. You don’t do that by luck,” Ms. DeMatteis said.

The Department of Correction already has experience handling illnesses, of course, and officials noted the agency has prevented a widespread flu outbreak three years in a row.

An inmate in work release recently tested positive for coronavirus for the first time, prompting the agency to begin contacting tracing. Inmates in work release are being kept apart from other offenders.

Both those in SCI and those taking part in work release have their temperatures checked twice a day, according to the department.

When work release was shut down earlier this year, participants were given opportunities to work in the department’s facilities, such as renovating Plummer Community Corrections Center, per the commissioner.

“It wasn’t as if they just sat in their cells,” Ms. DeMatteis said.

Inmates who test positive are generally sent to one of two buildings: a vacant facility at Vaughn that’s been turned into a COVID treatment spot or another building at SCI that has been cleared out for COVID patients. Each building has four “tiers” so asymptomatic and symptomatic patients are kept separately. Inmates who have underlying medical issues that could be exacerbated by coronavirus are in their own tier as well.

Patients at the SCI center are given their own water pitchers, toiletries, snacks and a change of clothes. There, they are housed in open quarters centered around an administrative area with glass walls, enabling staff to spot inmates who appear ill.

Most at the Vaughn site have cells to themselves, although some do share, Ms. DeMatteis said.

After they test negative, inmates are moved from one of those buildings to a separate housing unit where they remain for at least two weeks. They do not return to general population unless they have had two consecutive negative COVID tests, meaning they’ve been free of the virus for a minimum of 14 days.

Newly admitted individuals are housed away from the general population for two weeks to be sure they are COVID-free, according to the commissioner.

Offenders are tested based on a belief the virus has entered the facility. There’s no sign of COVID at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution, so there’s no point in conducting testing there right now, Ms. DeMatteis said.

Correction officials are looking for specific symptoms in inmates, chiefly a temperature of at least 100 degrees, coughing, a runny nose, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal issues and loss of taste or smell.

The department is much more concerned about symptomatic offenders than those who test positive but feel fine. Of the 88 active inmate cases as of Friday, 70 have no symptoms.

Among the 18 inmates who are less fortunate are five who are hospitalized and two who are receiving treatment in prison infirmaries.

Ms. DeMatteis praised department employees for their commitment to doing the job properly during these tough times.

Advocates raise concerns

But not everyone believes the situation is as rosy as the state says. For one, some advocates believe the focus on symptomatic offenders means the virus could sneak into a facility from an asymptomatic carrier. There are also questions about why more inmates, particularly high-risk ones, have not been released to the outside world as a precaution.

A Facebook group for families of SCI inmates shows some feel the department is lying about its precautions and is being negligent in its treatment of those in its care. At least one protest has taken place.

Citing unnamed correctional officers, Downstate TV station WMDT reported earlier this month inmates at SCI are being treated worse than prisoners of war. The prison is overcrowded and lacking sufficient protective equipment, WMDT alleged.

The department has denied both those and similar claims from inmates and their families.

Paulette Rappa, executive director of The Way Home, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders reenter society, noted correctional officers at SCI were not required to be tested. Because of that, she fears asymptomatic officers could be spreading the virus, particularly if they are moved to another prison, as has been done at times due to staff shortages.

She said she has heard “mixed reviews” from individuals inside the prisons and their families.

“Let’s be frank: I know that they’re doing their utmost best in terms of medical care in there but they’re not a hospital,” she said of the Department of Correction.

She is also concerned about a lack of programming in the facilities, particularly for individuals who are being released.

“Nobody knows who’s coming out, how they’re coming out, who’s doing the transitional plan,” Ms. Rappa said. “Everything’s in such disarray.”

According to The Marshall Project, a criminal justice nonprofit, Delaware has one of the highest rates in the nation of both cases and deaths among inmates. With 1,099 cases (worse than all but four states) and 15 deaths (fourth worst) per 10,000 prisoners, Delaware ranks very poorly in The Marshall Project’s findings. (Those findings are from before the state announced an eighth death Friday, so Delaware’s rank is likely even worse when considering that.)

“The deaths in Delaware prisons most prominently bring to light the state’s failure to help those most medically vulnerable,” the Delaware ACLU said after the announcement of the SCI outbreak. “The Delaware DOC itself has pointed out nearly all the people who have died had significant underlying medical conditions, and they ranged in age from 60 to 81 years old.

“While these individuals were all serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes, it’s important to remember that only four percent of people released from prison over the age of 65 commit new crimes, meaning many elderly and sick people can be released without harm to public safety. And as the ACLU has long advocated, it is an important cost-cutting factor as many of these individuals can obtain better and more cost-efficient care in the community rather than in prisons.

“It’s not too late for Delaware to change course and proactively confront the public health crisis in our state’s prisons. As COVID-19 continues to sweep across our nation, we must strive to ensure all people are protected from disease and sickness — especially those most vulnerable in our state correctional facilities.”

The state has about 3,900 inmates housed in its four prisons, the lowest total in decades, according to Ms. DeMatteis.

She noted the department does not have unilateral authority to release inmates. However, state law does allow the department to petition the courts for a sentence modification. Reasons for doing so include “rehabilitation of the offender, serious medical illness or infirmity of the offender and prison overcrowding.”

‘People are scared’

The ACLU has stumped for releasing nonviolent offenders in the last six months of their sentences, especially those who have health issues.

“People are scared,” Delaware ACLU Executive Director Mike Brickner said. “They’re very concerned about catching COVID. I think people in the facilities are very nervous about the likelihood that they are going to become sick.”

So far, the department has recommended about 20 to 30 inmates be released early due to coronavirus, Ms. DeMatteis said.

The agency can send a request to the Board of Parole, which then recommends whether the inmate should be released early or not. Final authority rests with judges.

“We can affirm that all Level V (prison) facilities reviewed their inmate populations for eligible cases under 4217 and the Department of Correction submitted its approved cases to the Board of Parole, as required, during the pandemic,” a spokesman for the department wrote in an email, referencing specific sections of Delaware law. “Additionally, cases with 6 months or less remaining on their Level V sentence may be considered for work release if they meet the stipulations identified in Del Code Title 11 section 6533.

“Numerous factors do make inmates ineligible for consideration, including cases deemed habitual, prior escape records, poor institutional behavior, high risk of recidivism, mandatory sentences, and the level of rehabilitative program requirements for the offender. The Department of Correction must carefully review and evaluate each case for its consideration and recommendation.”

The Board of Parole has not met since March 10, the day before the state’s first COVID case. Though technical issues have prevented members from convening virtually, they are expected to do so in the next two weeks, per board staff.

Gov. John Carney has resisted calls to release large numbers of inmates. A spokesman for the governor said he is confident the situation in the prisons is being handled appropriately but did not respond to further questions.

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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