While Alaska’s Department of Corrections is currently dealing with hundreds of active COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff statewide, the two major correctional facilities on the Kenai Peninsula have managed to avoid a similar surge in cases.
According to Sarah Gallagher, public information officer with the DOC, 857 general population inmates and 177 newly remanded inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 statewide as of Dec. 4. The majority of those cases — 680 — were considered active as of Dec. 5. Between Nov. 24 and Dec. 4 DOC logged 447 new cases among inmates. Gallagher reported a total DOC inmate population of 4,573 on Dec. 8, meaning that just under 15% of all inmates in Alaska were COVID-19 positive on Dec. 5. Three inmates have died from COVID-19, all in the past month, and six were hospitalized as of Dec. 5.
In stark contrast, Wildwood Correctional Facility in Kenai had zero active cases among inmates as of Wednesday, and Spring Creek Correctional Facility had one active case as of Dec. 8. With an inmate population of 423 and 515, respectively, the two Kenai Peninsula prisons account for about 21% of all prisoners in Alaska.
In an interview with the Clarion on Thursday, Wildwood Superintendent Shannon McCloud said the Kenai correctional facility has been able to keep the numbers down in part because of the way the facility is built. There are two separate facilities for housing inmates — one for people who have not yet had their trial and one for sentenced inmates.
Every person who enters the pretrial facility is tested for COVID-19. The intake staff wear face shields, masks and gloves, and each inmate is given a mask to wear upon entry. If that person is not released on bail, then they are screened by DOC medical personnel and asked a series of questions to determine if they’ve been around anyone with COVID-19 or COVID-like symptoms. A “yes” to any of those questions prompts immediate isolation for that inmate, and all others are placed into a quarantine area for 14 days. After those 14 days, they are transferred to regular dorms or to Building 10, which is the building that houses sentenced inmates.
A portion of the pretrial building has been designated as a quarantine zone, McCloud said. This strategy has been effective in preventing the disease from coming into the sentenced facility, she said.
The “quarantine zone” in the pretrial building was created in response to the pandemic and consists of several two-person dorms. The inmates are required to thoroughly clean the dorms every time they leave for recreation or any other reason, and only one pair is allowed to leave at a time. Wildwood also has additional prisoners cleaning the facility for $1 an hour, which is a slight increase from the 60-75 cents per hour they would normally get for janitorial work.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Wildwood has seen three positive cases in the pretrial facility and one among sentenced inmates.
“I really think that’s proved successful for us, because a lot of people really don’t know how this virus can react,” McCloud said. “Sometimes it’s seven days before someone gets sick, sometimes it’s nine days, so if we just hold them that 14 days I feel like we’ve got our bases covered.”
If someone is released from the pretrial facility after a couple of days and DOC subsequently receives a positive test result from that person, McCloud said that they contact the state’s Division of Public Health so that they can reach out and begin the contact-tracing process. That’s exactly what happened with the most recent positive case at Wildwood, McCloud said, with DOC getting the positive test result as the man was “walking out the door.”
McCloud said that every correctional facility in Alaska looks different in terms of design and layout, which could be impacting the effectiveness of mitigation strategies. Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla, which is the largest correctional facility in the state, is currently experiencing the highest rate of infection among all DOC facilities and was dealing with 480 active cases as of Dec. 1.
“We (DOC superintendents) have a meeting once a week, and Goose Creek is a hot topic because their numbers have exploded, but they’ve started to figure it out. They’re isolating people in specific dorms until they cease being contagious and they’re testing all the time,” McCloud said. “It’s tough because each facility is so different in terms of the way they’re laid out and where you have space to hold people. We’re just fortunate that we do have a pretrial and a sentenced building, that we’re able to give these guys 14 days to quarantine and then scoot them over to the sentenced wing, if they qualify, to give pretrial a break.”
In addition to COVID-19 among inmates, the disease has presented challenges for the DOC in terms of staffing shortages. Gallagher said that, as of Dec. 5, 99 institution-based employees were quarantined, which represents “less than 10%” of the institution-based workforce. There were also six pretrial, probation and parole officers quarantined at home but able to do some work remotely. McCloud said that Wildwood has not been immune to the staffing shortages, and having just a few people out due to illness or being quarantined can make a big difference.
“So far the staff have been stellar in this whole process,” McCloud said. “And we’re trying really hard to keep up the morale, but when you lose two or three people on a shift, and a shift in your building is only six people, that makes it pretty difficult at times.”
The morale among inmates has taken a hit as well, McCloud said, because of the lack of in-person visits and limited interaction with others. At the beginning of the pandemic, the DOC suspended all in-person visitations statewide, and that policy is still in effect.
With the arrival of the winter months, outdoor recreation has also been harder to accommodate. McCloud said that inmates are on a recreation schedule that’s based on the floor where they’re housed, and while each floor is given a few hours of outdoor recreation per day there is currently no outdoor recreation at night. There are mental health professionals on staff to provide inmates with counseling services, and those staff members are “swamped,” according to McCloud.
“We try to keep it light and lively with staff and inmates, to make sure that they’re not getting too stressed out,” McCloud said. “I know they would like more recreation, but right now it’s just not in the chips.”
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at email@example.com or by mail at 150 Trading Bay Road #1, Kenai, Alaska 99611.