ACLU urges DOC to contain Delaware prison coronavirus problem

DOVER — As COVID-19’s spread quickens throughout Delaware, the state’s prison system hasn’t been immune to the steady rise.

Active coronavirus cases have jumped rapidly among inmates and Delaware Department of Correction staff and contractors, according to recent public updates.

There were 374 active inmate cases (more than 90% asymptomatic, according to the DOC) reported Tuesday, up from 81 on Nov. 20.

Staff and medical contractor cases throughout all DOC facilities went from 39 reported on Nov. 20 to 109 Wednesday. The data included prisons, probation and parole offices, community correction centers, among others.

Delaware’s two largest prisons – James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna and Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington – were particularly hard hit recently. From Nov. 20 to Tuesday, combined offender cases at the penal institutions went from 47 to 356.

JTVCC and HRYCI had inmate populations of 1,809 and 1,233, respectively, as of Nov. 30, the DOC said.

As of Tuesday, there were 17 active coronavirus cases among Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution’s roughly 205 inmate population. There were 32 cases at the New Castle-based facility reported on Nov. 20.

No positive inmate cases were reported at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, which held 921 prisoners.

DOC commissioner Claire DeMatteis attributed the quickened pace in cases to the “significant spike in community spread outside of DOC facilities.

“Additionally, we know the virus has mutated and it spreads more quickly.”

While DOC expressed confidence that comprehensive health and safety measures were being taken prior to the recent spike, “The COVID-19 virus that we’re seeing now seems to spread more easily but with milder symptoms,” Commissioner DeMatteis said.

“We are fully confident that we will eliminate the current infections from our facilities and move our inmate patients to recovery. Our facilities know that COVID is now an everyday part of prison operations and we will remain vigilant in continuing to operate our prevention, screening, testing, treatment, cleaning and mitigation protocols to eradicate the threat of COVID-19 in our correctional system.”

On Wednesday, ACLU of Delaware and the First State Chapter of the National Medical Association sent a letter to Gov. John Carney and Commissioner DeMatteis that included policy recommendations:

• Ensuring that incarcerated individuals have access to personal hygiene items at no cost;

• Continuing the sending and receiving of mail and phone calls free of charge;

•Implementing consistent widespread testing for all incarcerated individuals and DOC staff;

• Downsizing the footprint of the prison population and minimizing new admissions; and

• Working with community stakeholders to ensure that people who are released from prison have a safe, accessible place to live, a livable income, and access to health care.

“Tuesday’s announcement (of 471 positive DOC-related cases) paints a somber picture for Delaware’s incarcerated population, as well as for those who work for the Department of Correction,” said Mike Brickner, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, in a statement.

“We are already among the highest rates in the nation for COVID deaths of incarcerated people. Our leaders must act immediately to ensure that we don’t become the leaders of that list.”

Also, Dr. Shauna McIntosh, president of the First State Chapter of the National Medical Association, said “Governor Carney and Commissioner DeMatteis must work together to act on the public health recommendations they’ve been receiving since the start of the pandemic.

“There is no time to waste in enacting these measures to mitigate the impact of the current outbreak and attempt to control any future spread of the virus for the duration of the pandemic.”

Policy Advocate Javonne Rich represented the ACLU of Delaware in the letter.

The letter was copied to multiple state leaders and elected officials, including Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and Delaware Supreme Court Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr.

The ACLU also called for expedited release of certain inmates, with public safety and their success factored in:

• Anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable (over the age of 60 and individuals with immune deficiencies, chronically ill, infirmed) whose sentence would end in  the next two years

•● Anyone whose sentence would end in the next six months

• Anyone being held pre-trial for inability to post bail

• Anyone incarcerated on a probation revocation based on a technical violation. 

“These measures also include ensuring the efficient operation of the Board of Parole, which just had their first meeting in October 2020 after not functioning for at least eight months,” said the ACLU in a statement.

Following the letter’s public release, the DOC issued a statement that read in part:

‘Today’s repeated call by the ACLU for the mass release of inmates before the end of their court-ordered prison sentences reflects the organization’s longstanding political and policy goals but does not provide protections for inmates or support public safety.

“It also cites false and misleading accusations as a basis for this extreme and unprecedented step. Even in its own statement the ACLU acknowledges that the knee-jerk release of hundreds, or even thousands, of inmates out onto the streets without developing thoughtful reentry plans, job prospects, housing, and healthcare is a recipe for disaster.

“We agree, and that’s why the Department of Correction will continue to follow our comprehensive COVID-19 prevention, treatment, and mitigation protocols to reduce the risk of infection and eradicate the illness when it appears anywhere within our correctional system.”

Attempts for comment from Gov. Carney’s office Thursday were not immediately successful.

The ACLU of Delaware pointed to tracking by the Marshall Project reporting that the First State had the third-highest rate of inmate deaths in the nation.

There have been 11 related offender deaths – 10 from serious chronic diseases and one from COVID-19 complications, the DOC said. Seven fatal cases were from JTVCC and four from SCI.

A total of 659 offenders and 228 staff have recovered from COVID-19, the DOC said.

The full letter is posted online at aclude.org.

DOC facilities had seen significant stretches of no new positive inmate COVID-19 test results – none from May 22 through June 28, along with July 31 through Sept. 11.

There have been 11 related offender deaths – 10 from serious chronic diseases and one from COVID-19 complications, the DOC said. Seven fatal cases were from JTVCC and four from SCI.

‘Possibility of exposure’

Correctional Officers of Delaware President Geoff Klopp gave the DOC’s response efforts a figurative thumbs up so far.

“Our officers walk into the correctional facilities every day knowing 100% for sure they are walking into the very real possibility of exposure,” he said. “The Department of Correction has maintained constant communications with COAD and we have relayed that there are few shortfalls to overcome as it pertains to equipment.

“The DOC has been receptive and additional items have been ordered.

“Thus far I would have to say that the DOC has done very well with the resources they have. No one could have predicted the impact this virus would have on staff and the inmate population.

While staffing levels were an issue before the pandemic hit, Mr. Klopp said that once it “took a foothold it simply exacerbated the issue with the number of staff who are out of work due to exposure and/or illness. The DOC has engaged in efforts to recruit and retain staff, but they can only work with the tools they’re given.

“We need the General Assembly to step up during the next session and approve our retirement bill in an effort to attract more employees.”

The DOC said it believes that its approximately 1,800 officers are sufficient to operate facilities, even accounting for staff who are subject to COVID-19 quarantine.

Reinforcements are coming. The DOC said next month’s Correctional Officer Academy graduation class will drop vacancies to approximately 100, the lowest in several years.

Mr. Klopp stressed that “Correctional officers do not have the option of working remotely, distancing themselves from one another or from the inmate population, which on a daily basis often exceeds 50 inmates to one officer.

“Correctional officers do not have an endless supply of Personal Protective Equipment to carry out their duties. They do with what they have. Yet still, they still come to work. They truly put service before self to serve the citizens of Delaware.

“In most career fields this would be an inconceivable task, but this is what correctional officers do.”

According to Mr. Klopp, “We have encouraged our members to follow the medial guidance of the state.

“We have encouraged participation in the free testing that has been made available in the facilities and most recently, we have encouraged our members to consider participating in the COVID-19 vaccine that will soon be available in Delaware.”

Moving forward, Mr. Klopp is pushing for the DOC’s continued information push with staff and the public on the state of COVID-19.

“It is very important that everyone know the efforts that are being carried out inside the walls of our facilities to get all of us through this pandemic,” he said.

Adjusted work shifts

To meet the challenge of responding to the surge of positive cases, the Bureau of Prisons and DOC’s contract health care provider have adjusted work shifts to 12-hour shifts for security staff and medical contractors who work in the COVID-19 Treatment Centers, spokesman Jason Miller said.

Shifts for other staff members are unchanged, according to the DOC.

Staff continues to report regularly, the DOC.

“DOC’s use of overtime is increasing to cover shifts of staff who are in quarantine but we are not having issues covering shifts,” Commissioner DeMatteis said.

The DOC said that staff who are diagnosed with COVID-19 can’t work until being fever free for 72 hours and at least 10 days have passed since the onset of symptoms or seven days have passed since they tested positive for COVID-19 (whichever is earlier).

Staff who were hospitalized with COVID-19 are excluded until they have attained 20 days from when symptoms began plus they have been fever free for 72 hours, the DOC said. Individuals who required hospitalization for COVID-19 need a doctor’s clearance prior to return to work.

According to the DOC, it implemented a “comprehensive screening, cleaning, monitoring, testing, tracing, quarantine and treatment protocols before COVID-19 reached Delaware.

“These protocols have continued uninterrupted for more than eight months.”

As the community spread rose last month, the DOC temporarily suspended in-person visitation on Nov. 12, and work release programs in the community were paused.

The DOC said it increased daily symptom checks of inmates across multiple facilities, which now includes more than 2,200 inmates, and it increased proactive COVID-19 testing.

According to the DOC, more than 1,800 inmate COVID-19 tests have been administered over just the past three weeks and 7,000 inmate COVID-19 tests have been administered since March.

As COVID-19 grew elsewhere before its arrival here, the DOC said a “comprehensive” protocol for initial screening, cleaning, testing, contract testing and treatment was established.

The confined nature of a prison creates its own challenges, the DOC acknowledged.

“In terms of making use of space, DOC has taken advantage of empty and underused housing units to spread out inmates, particularly vulnerable inmates with chronic conditions, and to establish standalone COVID-19 Treatment Centers, designed to hospital standards, to provide excellent round-the-clock treatment to inmates who test positive for COVID-19,” Commissioner DeMatteis said.

“Additionally, the DOC has acted proactively over the past eight months to limit the movement of staff, visitors and inmates into and within DOC facilities where necessary to reduce the risk of transmission.

“Most programming was transitioned from in-person instruction, where inmates co-mingled in programming buildings, to virtual programming where inmates participate virtually from mobile education stations established in housing units.”

Among other precautions and responses to COVID-19, the DOC said it had:

• Urged staff to get tested regularly and has utilized dozens of COVID-19 testing sessions for staff across all DOC facilities.

• Provided all officers and staff with daily access to free COVID-19 test kits at all facility locations.

• This week, DOC medical staff have been handing out test kits to staff in every facility.

• The DOC said it has strongly encouraged staff and their families to receive testing at community testing locations provided by state and local government.

• Some security and medical staff, especially those who are working with COVID-positive inmates, are also wearing additional PPE, including medical gowns and face shields, the DOC said. According to the DOC, the additional step is being taken as a precautionary extra layer of protection for inmates to guard against the transmission of this illness.

The DOC said it continues to work with DPH to acquire rapid COVID test kits and with DPH on pending plans to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine.

Also, the DOC said it maintains its own ample supply of PPE, and has access to more through state agencies, including the Delaware Emergency Management Agency if unanticipated need arise

“DOC and its contract medical provider work seamlessly together to meet the testing and treatment needs of our inmates, and we have excellent relationships with outside medical facilities when inmates require specialized treatment or hospitalization outside our facilities,” Commissioner DeMatteis said.


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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