The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 25, 2020 11:50 am

Indiana correctional facilities still eating meals in large groups

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Much of society has shut down and people are keeping their distance due to the novel coronavirus, but Indiana prisoners are still taking meals together in large groups as well as outdoor recreation.

And while the Indiana Department of Correction points out “there are no known cases,” the agency admitted it hasn't tested any of its nearly 27,000 offenders.

Thirteen staff members have been tested for COVID-19 and spokesman David Bursten said some staff were positive. He provided no other details.

The department has more than 5,600 employees, according to the state website.

“The Indiana Department of Correction will manage infectious diseases in correctional facilities through a comprehensive approach which includes prevention, testing, appropriate treatment, education, and infection control measures,” the agency wrote on its website.

The agency suspended visitation at prisons two weeks ago to limit the possibility of the virus being brought into the facilities. Inmates are getting two free phone calls of up to 5-minutes per week through April 14.

A directive from the commissioner outlined procedures for the state's 20 facilities, including:

- Monitoring for disease outbreaks

- Separation of ill offenders

- Implementing social distancing when a few offenders are ill

- Isolation housing units when a substantial number of offenders are ill

- Planning for staff shortages, including cross-training employees and temporarily shutting down noncritical operations if a substantial number of offenders and staff become ill

But a correctional officer reached out to the Journal Gazette with concerns that meals aren't being taken in individual cells, for instance. And hundreds of inmates are together during recreation time.

Bursten said a “correctional housing facility does not allow for meal service in groups of 10 or less.” And he said during recreation periods CDC guidelines on 'social distancing' of six feet or more “are being followed as permitted.”

CDC also has guidance specifically for correctional and detention facilities. It gave several strategies, including staggering meals, rearranging seating in the dining hall so that there is more space between individuals and providing meals inside housing units or cells.

It is not clear if the Indiana Department of Correction is doing the first two suggestions.

Bursten also said some offenders are being taken off-campus for doctor and court appointments “as required on a case-by-case basis and with direction from related courts and medical staff.”

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