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This page offers all of Delaware Public Media's ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it is affecting the First State. Check here regularly for the latest new and information.

As Delaware prisons ramp up COVID-19 precautions, correctional officers test positive

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Sophia Schmidt
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Delaware Public Media
James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna

Two correctional officers and several contract healthcare workers in the state prison system have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Delaware Department of Correction.

 

Two contract behavioral healthcare workers whose positive tests the Department of Correction (DOC) announced Sunday were assigned to the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna and the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington. The worker assigned to James T. Vaughn Correctional Center was last there March 26. The worker assigned to Howard R. Young was last there April 1.

 

Both correctional officers who tested positive were assigned to James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC) in Smyrna, the state’s largest prison.

 

The first officer to test positive was last at JTVCC March 27 and was tested for the virus March 29, Department of Correction (DOC) officials said. DOC received that result Friday. 

 

The second officer to test positive was assigned to the maximum security housing area at JTVCC, and was last there March 31. The officer was tested later that day, and DOC received the result Saturday, April 4.

 

"The DOC is acting swiftly at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and across our facilities to confront the risks of COVID-19, with new protective and quarantine measures on top of the rigorous prevention and screening practices that have been in place for several weeks," DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said in a statement Saturday. 

DOC officials say inmates and staff in the maximum security housing area at JTVCC are undergoing twice-daily symptom checks, including a temperature check with a thermometer. Inmate movement is being further limited, officials say, with inmates recreating individually in an isolated area.

DOC announced Friday morning that a contract healthcare worker also tested positive. The individual was assigned to the New Castle County Community corrections system and was last in a DOC facility March 16. 

Officials said no other DOC staff members, contract workers or inmates in New Castle County Community Corrections facilities—which consist of the Plummer Community Corrections Center in Wilmington and the Hazel D. Plant Women's Treatment Center in New Castle—have shown symptoms. 

DOC officials said the sick healthcare worker was tested March 20. DOC did not receive results until April 2, by which time the healthcare worker had recovered. 

So far DOC has not announced any COVID-19 cases among inmates.  

 

“The mood, the atmosphere in our facilities … it's calm,” said DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis before the Correctional Officer case was announced Friday. “It's business as usual. There's a camaraderie of, you know, we're going to keep this virus out of our facilities. There's daily exercises of how to respond. There's no panic.”

 

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Credit Nick Ciolino / Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis

"We kept programming going as long as we could. " - Claire DeMatteis

Delaware’s correctional facilities, which house close to 5,000 inmates and detainees, have ramped up precautions against an outbreak in the last week — some at the expense of inmate services. 

DOC has suspended all in-person programming at its facilities. It has also suspended non-emergency medical services, like dental care, elective procedures and behavioral healthcare, for inmates. 

DeMatteis says the push to suspend programming came from inmates. 
 

“When I’m in the facilities, it’s offenders who are saying we don’t want people coming into the facilities that might have been contaminated on the outside,” she said. “They literally are asking us to stop it. They understand that if it is introduced into the prisons it will be from somebody from the outside, so in an abundance of caution and to prevent inmates from different buildings co-mingling and then going back to different buildings, we’re going to just halt programming for two weeks.”

DeMatteis says the suspension is for two weeks, after which the Department will reassess the need for the suspensions. She says the two-week timeframe was chosen based on models that predict cases will peak in Delaware in mid-April. 

“We're in a really critical time in Delaware as a state of when our COVID-19 cases are projected to peak,” she said. “That's what's driving our decision. We kept programming going as long as we could. But now as we come to this heightened state of alert on COVID-19 cases, I thought it was appropriate and prudent to put a halt to programming during this next critical phase of the coronavirus in our state.”

She says religious programming is continuing virtually — and that DOC plans to expand virtual educational programming to level 5 facilities over the next two weeks.

The new restrictions follow other policy changes last month. Visitors and volunteers were barred from DOC facilities. DOC said inmates would receive two free five-minute phone calls per week to adapt to the suspension of visitation.  Staff as well as new inmates and detainees are screened for signs of illness as they enter facilities, and newly arriving inmates are now held in a separate housing unit for 14 days where they receive close monitoring by medical staff. 

Still, some advocates argue a reduction in the incarcerated population is warranted to protect vulnerable prisoners.  

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Credit Sarah Mueller, Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna

"As for the Department of Correction, they have an opportunity under section 4217 of our penal code to file motions for reduction of sentence. To date, the Department of Correction has been unwilling to do that." - Chief Defender Brendan O'Neill

Chief Defender in Delaware’s Office of Defense Services Brendan O’Neill says attorneys in his office have been petitioning the courts for bail reductions to get people out of pretrial detention. 

“People who are awaiting trial—pretrial detainees—it’s incumbent upon the defense lawyers to move to reduce the bail, to get a bail that can be made by the person in custody, so that person can secure his release. That’s probably the primary source [of the reduction in detainees,] and that’s on us.”

But O’Neill says there has been no movement on reducing the population of people serving long-term sentences in Delaware’s prisons.

“As for the Department of Correction, they have an opportunity under section 4217 of our penal code to file motions for reduction of sentence,” he said. “To date, the Department of Correction has been unwilling to do that.”

DOC Commissioner DeMatteis says the Department does not plan to do so, even if there is an outbreak in a prison.

“People should stop talking about it,” she said. “It's not going to happen. We're not going to start releasing convicted felons from prison, period.”

DeMatteis says there is “no reason” to release offenders early.

“They have a sentence for a reason,” she said. “It really calls into question our whole criminal justice system, just to say because we have a virus, that we should start releasing people early. Where are they going to go? They're gonna live underneath the bridge.  They're going to be in more of a dangerous situation outside of our facility than inside, if we have an outbreak. We have COVID-19 treatment centers ready to be operated, where the offenders will be isolated. They will get better treatment there than they would if they were out in the community.”

To complicate matters, DOC transitioned to a new healthcare provider for the prison system April 1. 

Vienna, Virginia-based government health care provider Centurion holds correctional system contracts in 15 other states. DOC ended its contract with the previous provider, Connections, three months early.

DeMatteis says the transition to Centurion has been “smooth and seamless.”

“It is difficult to transition to a new healthcare and behavioral health provider anytime,” she said. “I can't say enough positive about how professional and organised Centurion is. They transferred all of the employees and hired new staff. They're increasing their telehealth capabilities, which will be really important during this crisis. They've just been phenomenal to work with.”

 

DeMatteis says Centurion has not advised any changes to DOC’s coronavirus protocols. 

 

This story has been updated.

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