Advocates say prisons are especially vulnerable to an outbreak of the new coronavirus because residents live in close quarters and are often in poor health.
Delaware does not have a confirmed case of the new coronavirus in its prison system yet, according to the Department of Correction (DOC). Several inmates have tested negative for COVID-19, according to DOC officials.
DOC says it has taken steps to reduce the chance of the virus being introduced at its facilities, which house close to 5,000 inmates and detainees.
Visitors and volunteers are barred from DOC facilities, and staff as well as new inmates and detainees are screened signs of illness as they enter. Earlier this month, DOC announced inmates would receive two free five-minute phone calls per week to adapt to the suspension of visitation.
DOC suspended all group treatment programs at Probation and Parole offices Wednesday for at least two weeks. DOC officials say group program treatment providers have been directed to maintain contact with probationers enrolled in treatment programs by phone.
DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis says the Department has a plan for if an inmate comes down with the virus.
“Level 4 and Level 5— every facility has identified an area — a tier, an entire building that they will use as an isolation area,” she said. “Any inmate who might test positive will stay in that isolation area through the duration of the illness.”
DeMatteis adds several facilities have special zero-pressure medical rooms that would be utilized for inmates with the virus.
“If there’s a larger number of cases, we are prepared to turn entire buildings to house only inmates who need treatment for COVID-19,” said DeMatteis.
She says the 250-bed Central Violation of Probation Office in Dover that was closed last July could be staffed with medical professionals and used as a COVID-19 treatment center for inmates, and that DOC’s largest facility, the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, has two empty buildings that could be used for the same purpose.
“Certainly dealing with any infectious disease, any infectious virus presents additional complications in a prison, because in a prison you don’t have the normal 6-foot distance [recommended by the CDC for social distancing],” said DeMatteis.
The Commissioner says DOC does not plan to use the overflow space to aid in social distancing before a case of COVID-19 is detected in the prison system, but that prison staff are trying to enforce distancing between inmates when they are outside, sitting in programming or during meals.
DeMatteis admits the general inmate population is not screened routinely for the virus, but says every inmate has access to medical care.
“If they had any symptoms, if an officer sees they’re coughing or anything like that, they would immediately go to the medical infirmary,” she said.
Several states have waived co-pays for inmate-initiated sick calls and the cost of hygiene supplies, such as soap, from the prison commissaries during the COVID-19 crisis.
Delaware DOC spokesperson Jason Miller says soap is always free to inmates here. He wrote in an email that DOC inmates have “wide access” to soap and water, and that the department has ordered additional hand soap stations to be wall-mounted in inmate recreational areas.
DeMatteis says because of the limited nature of COVID-19 tests, Delaware DOC will not commit to waiving all co-pays for care potentially related to the virus, but will address co-pays on a case-by-case basis.
“If we have an inmate who’s sick and who’s [exhibiting] symptoms, if they need a test, they're going to get a test, and we’ll pay for it,” said DeMatteis. “But if every inmate says I want a COVID-19 test … that’s not going to happen. If somebody’s sick and they need a COVID-19 test, we’re going to do the right thing.”
DeMatteis also points to DOC’s policies surrounding the seasonal flu.
“For the past three flu seasons, we have successfully made sure there was no wide-spread outbreak of this among offenders. We have isolated offenders who do get the flu, and it doesn’t get beyond three or six inmates,” she said. “We are stepping up our screenings and our precautions, we are taking COVID-19 extremely seriously, but DOC has a track record of controlling infectious diseases within our facilities.”
COVID-19 is thought to be more contagious than the flu, and more easily transmitted by asymptomatic people. It is also more deadly.
Correctional Officer union president Geoff Klopp commended DeMatteis and Gov. Carney for “getting far out in front of” the novel coronavirus.
“The correctional officers of Delaware are very appreciative to the Commissioner and the Department of Correction for being so aggressive and on the right track in this situation,” he said. “Everyone should feel safe about anyone that’s inside of these facilities that we are doing everything that we can.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware (ACLU) is requesting further action from the state to protect inmates and prison staff from the deadly coronavirus.
“We know that an outbreak in any correctional facility is a serious public health risk,” said ACLU policy advocate Javonne Rich. “Once COVID-19 gets into the prisons, it could be very difficult to hold off or eliminate.”
The ACLU is asking the state to reduce the prison population during the pandemic by releasing pretrial detainees who cannot afford bail as well as certain inmates toward the end of their sentences.
Rich says the prison population is especially vulnerable.
“People who are incarcerated are more likely to have significant health issues,” said Rich. “Just the nature of being in close quarters— even though [DOC is] reducing the number of people who are going in and out, people who work there are going in and out of the prisons daily, they’re moving around the prisons— so it is very difficult, seemingly, to practice social distancing in that sort of environment.”
Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis argues there is no overcrowding issue in Delaware’s prisons — and that it is not in DOC’s power to reduce sentences.
Mat Marshall, a spokesperson for the Delaware Department of Justice, said in an email, "with regard to the current public health crisis, the Department of Justice is working with the public defenders to see whether anyone currently incarcerated is a good candidate for release."
"This is unprecedented territory for everyone, but the Attorney General and senior leadership are maintaining regular contact with law enforcement and the Department of Correction to ensure that we are providing for both public health and public safety going forward," he added.
A representative from the Governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ACLU’s demands.
This story has been updated.