Indiana Dept. of Corrections responds after Hoosiers complain about COVID-19 protocols at state prisons

Problem Solvers

INDIANAPOLIS – Hoosiers are calling for change at Indiana’s prisons, claiming their loved ones – who are incarcerated – have not been given the items needed to protect them from COVID-19.

“I have not been able to see my brother in over a year,” Angel Thompson said.

“It has been a devastating experience,” Raqibah Basir told CBS4.

Dozens of people have called CBS4 over the past year complaining about Indiana Department of Corrections facilities. Some have been upset over the conditions at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Others have mentioned a need for change at the Miami Correctional Facility. Each have told our CBS4 Problem Solvers team that their loved ones were not provided with hand sanitizer or proper social distancing.

“They’re giving him water,” Thompson said about her brother, who is incarcerated at Miami Correctional Facility. “They’re not giving him chemicals to clean.”

Thompson said her brother, who is sentenced until 2032, has underlying conditions including CoPD and emphysema. She is concerned that if he were to contract the coronavirus, he may die.

“They’re not even giving the inmates the proper care,” she stressed.

CBS4 spoke with the IDOC Medical Director, Dr. Kristen Dauss. She said the prison system started implementing COVID protocols in February 2020.

“I don’t think any of us knew exactly what to expect or what to do,” she said.

Dr. Dauss said IDOC immediately started screening its corrections staff, who leave the building daily. She told CBS4 IDOC provided inmates with at least one face mask and sanitizer.

“We absolutely provide face masks to incarcerated individuals. We stress the importance of face masks, especially in those group kinds of environments and spaces to ensure everyone is safe,” she said. “But it hasn’t always been easy.”

Dr. Dauss said at first, they provided incarcerated individuals bleach and alcohol-based hand sanitizer. There were some issues with that, though.

“Unfortunately, early in the pandemic, there was some mention about drinking bleach and hand sanitizer and things like that. Unfortunately, we did have some cases of that and that does concern me, but that doesn’t stop us from doing the work we have to do. Did we ban it? Did we eliminate it? No. But did we make it safer so that its secured and folks can get the amount they need? Yes,” she stated.

Dr. Dauss said IDOC started securing the items in containers provided by the Department of Health.

IDOC officials said they started sending COVID-positive inmates to quarantined areas within the prisons. In some locations, that meant incarcerated individuals were sleeping on cots in abandoned gym areas.

“Yes, we have gotten very creative and innovative in how we have had to build out COVID-19 separation spaces in our facilities,” Dr. Dauss said. “Frankly, we have done a remarkable job.”

She went on to say that IDOC has been cleaning each facility regularly and following up on any complaints that were reported.

CBS4 has learned the department, like many others nationwide, also waived any COVID-related copays. That allowed incarcerated individuals to visit the medical wing free of charge.

Dr. Dauss said it was challenging at times to get incarcerated individuals to report their symptoms.

“I don’t know if it’s that they don’t want to be separated or if they don’t want to be removed from housing. That’s a lot of times what I have heard. They don’t want medical checking on them twice a day, coming in getting vitals disrupting whatever they’ve got going on,” she explained.

Dr. Dauss said when they do get a positive test result back, the prison will initiate contact tracing right away.

As of March 2021, IDOC records showed an inmate population of 38,814. As of March 22nd, 2021, the department said it had recorded 1,607 positive cases from staff members and 3,552 positive test results from offenders. About 39 offenders had died from the virus since the pandemic began.

At the same time, IDOC said it has been trying to address the mental challenges of the pandemic as well.

IDOC banned visitation early in 2020. At the time, it implemented a free phone call policy and provided inmates with tablets, so they could communicate with their loved ones during the pandemic.

Prisons struggle to address the pandemic nationwide

The Marshall Project, which does a lot of research within the criminal justice system, reviewed coronavirus data at prisons nationwide. It found that across the country, prison conditions contributed to the spread of the infectious disease.

“The idea of social distancing is near impossible,” Katie Park, a data visualizations developer, said. “There are cramped conditions, a lot of communal spaces, less access to things like healthcare and sanitizing supplies like masks and disinfectants and on top of those factors, people who are incarcerated are more likely to have underlying conditions that could cause complications with the virus.”

The Marshall Project found a high amount of coronavirus at prisons nationwide. It identified several locations where the infection rate was higher than average.

“Nationwide, one in four prisoners has been infected with the virus. To compare that to the national population, that’s about four times the general population but we know of four states where more than half of all prisoners have been infected with the virus. Those are South Dakota, Arkansas, Kansas and Michigan,” Park said.

Park said when she looked at Michigan’s data, the infection rate was ten times higher than the general population. She wasn’t surprised.

“We definitely see states that have encountered large case numbers of the virus statewide also tend to see these things happening in prisons,” she went on.

The Marshall Project said as of early 2021, Indiana was averaging about one in nine prisoners who had been infected.

“That’s actually on the lower end of infection rates looking state to state,” Park pointed out. “People in prisons in Indiana were about 40 percent more likely to have been infected with the virus than people in Indiana generally.”

The Marshall Project said many prisons nationwide, including in Indiana, refused to adhere to federal recommendations, which suggested certain people be released early. Park said public health experts had resoundingly recommended the most effective way to mitigate the spread of the virus was to send elderly inmates, those who were nearing the end of their sentences and those who had been convicted of non-violent crimes, home.

“There isn’t a lot of disagreement among public health experts about what to do in those situations, but we just aren’t really seeing state governments respond all that quickly,” Park told CBS4. “We have seen the case numbers rise pretty dramatically over the course of the last ten months and it’s clear this problem, this virus, is not going to be going away.”

Park was sympathetic toward families who have loved ones inside America’s prisons. She said she, along with her colleagues at The Marshall Project, have heard about a lack of transparency and accountability within those facilities.

“It is so, so difficult not knowing what’s going on with your loved ones,” she said. “And I don’t think that information is being transmitted in a very timely manner.”

Controversy when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine at America’s prisons

In December 2020, the United States started rolling out its first approved COVID vaccine. Some states started vaccinating its staff first, whereas others offered the vaccine to those housed in highly contagious living arrangements like prisons. Communities were upset at both responses. Some said incarcerated individuals should not be vaccinated before the general public. Others pointed out prisoners were at high risk and should have gone before the corrections staff.

Indiana officials told CBS4 they offered the vaccine to its first responders, including corrections employees, and incarcerated individuals who met its age-based eligibility. As of this article, CBS4 did not have an updated number of how many offenders had been provided their immunization.

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