The Journal Gazette
Thursday, March 26, 2020 1:00 am

Prison system preps for outbreak

No inmates tested, but some staffers infected

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Department of Correction said “there are no known cases” of COVID-19 among its inmates but admitted to The Journal Gazette that it hasn't tested any of its nearly 27,000 offenders.

Thirteen staff members have been tested for the novel coronavirus, and spokesman David Bursten said some staffers did test positive. No other details were provided.

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

Much of society has shut down and people are keeping their distance because of the virus, but Indiana prisoners are still taking meals together in large groups as well as outdoor recreation.

“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

• Separating ill offenders

• Implementing social distancing when a few offenders are ill

• Setting up isolation housing units when a substantial number of offenders are ill

• Planning for staff shortages, including cross-training employees and temporarily shutting down non-critical operations if a substantial number of offenders and staffers 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 that during recreation periods, federal guidelines on “social distancing” of 6 feet or more “are being followed as permitted.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has suggestions for correctional and detention facilities, including staggering meals, rearranging seating in the dining hall to put more space between individuals, and providing meals inside housing units or cells.

It is not clear whether the Indiana Department of Correction is following 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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