Two weeks after Alaska’s first inmate tested positive there’s still no clear answer of how virus got in

Goose Creek Correctional Center (Image from Department of Corrections)

Over two weeks ago, the Alaska Department of Corrections announced the first coronavirus case of an inmate in the state’s prison system. Two weeks later, there are still questions as to how the case got into the facility, despite new screening protocols.

“It is a little bit of a mystery at this point as to how that person did come up positive,” Sarah Gallagher, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections acknowledged in an interview last week. 

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Immediately after the positive test, state epidemiologists tested all of the over 100 inmates in the Hotel Module wing of the facility, as well as staff identified in contact tracing, but all of those results have come back negative. 

To state officials, this speaks to the success of the DOC’s protocols. 

“I think it points to a success of the containment and also the mitigation efforts that we have been deploying for months now,” said Gallagher. 

The outdoor recreation area for the Special Management Unit at Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla in October. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

In mid-March, the DOC stopped allowing visitors in correctional facilities, started screening all employees for symptoms, and bumped up cleaning at the facilities in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for prisons. 

While prisons in other states like Ohio, where over 4,300 inmates test positive, have become hotbeds for the virus, Alaska still only has one inmate case. Seven employees at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau also tested positive for the coronavirus.

But some inmates and advocates say that safety protocols aren’t as tight as they could be. Social distancing in a correctional setting is all but impossible, said Trevor Stefano, who serves at Goose Creek for a 2006 murder. 

“There’s cells on all four sides, each cell contains two occupants, and there’s dry cells, meaning there’s no water or toilet in them So like I said, it’s a community latrine and shower, so we come out several times a day. We’re all in close proximity,” he said. 

During recreation times, inmates still sit close together to play cards or video games. Stefano said he knows the inmate who tested positive came from a double cell. While he’s not sure which of the two inmates it was, he says he regularly played sports with one of them. 

Gallagher wrote in an email that for inmates, “there is much more opportunity to social distance if one would choose,” and inmates are given two facemasks that they are encouraged to wear and wash daily.

Kevin Wheeler, an inmate in a different module at Goose Creek, said that dozens of inmates are crammed into a sallyport – a space between two doors that inmates must pass through – every day before meals. 

“It’s probably 15 feet by 10 feet, and when we’re going out they keep the outside door locked, so they just cram us in there and I don’t know how many it holds,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes we’re packed in there so good that they gotta keep one of the doors open.”

While the DOC says it is following CDC regulations, CDC offers significant flexibility based on security needs, space available at facilities, and judgment of prison officials.

For example, CDC recommends an over-60%-alcohol hand sanitizer “where security concerns permits,” but the DOC says there’s hand sanitizer in only some of the facilities. Inmates at Goose Creek say they just have soap.

CDC recommends allowing at least 6 feet of space between bunk beds “where space allows,” though inmates are still sharing 8-by-12-foot cells.

Goose Creek Prison. Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage.
Goose Creek Correctional Center. (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage)

It’s come at a cost for inmates, since they no longer have access to educational programming taught by volunteers from outside and can no longer see friends and family who visit in person. In response, the DOC gave inmates two additional free 15-minute phone calls outside the prison per day.

Those restrictions have increased the importance of social connection with fellow inmates, something that inmates and advocates say sets up a reverse incentive for inmates to request testing. 

The DOC regularly screens inmates for symptoms of COVID-19. If they say “yes” to any of the screening questions, they’re brought into a separate quarantine, away from friends.

“So if you say ‘no,’ then you get to stay in the mod where you play your Xbox and (watch) your TV, and be with your friends and whatnot,” said Stefano. “They’ve like set it up where there’s an incentive to decline admitting if you have symptoms or not. It’s kind of strange.”

While staff members have their temperatures taken daily, the Department of Corrections says that it relies on inmates to self-report symptoms. Gallagher said the DOC has eliminated barriers to testing and hasn’t heard that particular concern from inmates. The DOC has waived copays for coronavirus testing, and it says inmates are cooperative. 

Triada Stampas is the policy director for the ACLU of Alaska. She said she agrees with inmates who say there’s a reverse incentive. 

“They’re 100% right about that. So there may not be a cost barrier, but then there is a barrier insofar as there it feels punitive, because the measures are taken when someone self-reports (and) are punitive measures,” she said. 

It’s unclear how many people are self-reporting symptoms and asking for testing. The DOC says it has conducted about 150 inmate tests across the state’s prison system after the first positive case was reported. Over a hundred were directly related to Goose Creek.

Previously only about 60 tests had been conducted on inmates, but Stampas said information about how many tests are performed in each facility, how many inmates have received multiple test, and how many tests result from self-reporting symptoms should be made available to the public. 

“It’s not broken up in a way where people who have loved ones in the system can have some confidence that their loved ones who are in state custody are being treated safely as well,” said Stampas. 

The ACLU submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the state Department of Corrections on April 29 asking for more information about the agency’s planning and what complaints the agency had heard from inmates and families about conditions. As of Thursday, the organization hadn’t received any further information from the department. 

In response to a media request for Goose Creek’s coronavirus mitigation plan, the Department of Corrections pointed to a two-page document that is available on its website. The document contains general information about preventative measures across its facilities but doesn’t have details about specific locations. 

One thing that is clear, however, is that prisons in Alaska have reduced the number of inmates at their facilities. In mid-March, that number stood at nearly 4,800. Now it’s at about 4,150, according to DOC numbers compiled by UAA’s Alaska Justice Information Center.

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Gallagher said that at Goose Creek, there are about 300 open cells that could provide quarantine space for inmates should a larger-scale outbreak occur, though the ACLU is pushing for more early releases of inmates near the end of their terms or for those with underlying health conditions. 

The fear of a large-scale outbreak in a prison has led some other states to start mass testing throughout the facilities – instead of just testing those within the same module or those identified during contact tracing – and have found hundreds or thousands of inmates have been infected. 

Goose Creek – or the rest of the prison system – won’t be going that route, at least unless more inmates first test positive, Clinton Bennett, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services, wrote in an email.

While the tracing investigation will technically stay open for 28 days after the positive test, officials are hopeful testing won’t reveal any other positives. There isn’t any evidence that the test was a false-positive, wrote Bennett. 

One possibility is that the person who brought in the virus had recovered by the time of testing. 

“Chains of transmission can die out due to random chance,” he wrote in an email, when good hygiene and social distancing protocols are in place.