After months of successfully avoiding COVID-19 in its facilities, over 40% of people incarcerated in Alaska now have been infected.
That has frustrated advocates and families who point to overcrowding, inconsistent precautions, and a general lack of transparency about what is happening inside the Department of Corrections.
“They have not done nearly enough to mitigate the harm and spread of COVID-19 inside Alaska’s prisons,” said ACLU of Alaska Advocacy Director Michael Garvey.
He said long-running issues of overcrowding mean containing the spread of the disease once it begins is impossible. Some facilities have had to use gym floors to house people, which advocates say makes it impossible to ensure proper hygiene, especially during a pandemic.
At others, including Goose Creek prison in Wasilla, communal housing areas make containing the disease difficult, even if the overall population is below capacity.
Diane Boyd, whose husband is serving time at Goose Creek, called it “excruciating” to talk with him as case counts quickly rose from dozens to hundreds. Cordell Boyd kept his face covered with two masks during the height of the pandemic, even when cellmates weren’t: He’s serving a 99-year sentence for a triple homicide he committed as a teenager.
Over 1,000 of the prison’s residents were infected, more than 80% of its population. Three died. An unknown number will experience lingering effects of long-haul COVID.
“He said, ‘I know I committed a serious crime. But I don’t want to die from this,'” Boyd said. “And he said, ‘Who knows, if you catch it, what’s going to happen to you?’”
Goose Creek isn’t alone. Several facilities are hearing from inmates and their families about inconsistent or improper mask use contributing to the spread of the disease across the prison system.
Case counts have exceeded 100 people in at least six Alaska prisons, including in Bethel and Fairbanks, according to Corrections data.
But the department said it’s going above and beyond recommendations from the CDC for prisons. It said it has provided cleaning supplies, masks, and educational materials, and it has clear policies about masking and hygiene.
“I can’t think of anything that we should be doing more than we already are,” said Jeremy Hough, facilities director for Corrections. “I can tell you that there are several people that argue that we’re doing too much.”
For example, he said he hears lawyers and family members asking for more visitation. The department has banned in-person visits since March.
The Marshall Project, an investigative journalism nonprofit covering prisons, listed Alaska as one of twelve states who still have a total ban on in-person visitation. Of those twelve, Alaska has the highest rates of COVID-19, according to the Marshall Project’s numbers.
That gives inmates the worst of both worlds. They are cut off from loved ones while also running a high risk of catching COVID-19.
Hough said the high numbers are partially a result of the state’s robust inmate testing program. It has conducted an average of four tests per person since the pandemic began.
Angela Hall, who runs the Supporting Our Loved Ones Group group for families, said families often find that inmates still feel unsafe despite the comprehensive plans put in place by the department, though mask-wearing has improved in recent months.
“We find that there’s a real disconnect between the DOC administration and what is actually happening in the facilities,” she said.
For example, Hall said while the department has a policy of four free,15-minute phone calls per week per inmate, calls are often disconnected midway through, and people aren’t given time to make the calls they’re promised. Video calls have been limited to attorneys.
The vaccine could play a large role in ending the pandemic and reopening prisons to visitation. But inmates will likely have to wait at least an extra month for vaccinations, after the state’s vaccine allocation committee put all Alaskans over 65-years-old next in line. Some prisoners will start receiving the vaccine soon because of their age or underlying health problems, but many others will have to wait.
The fact that so many prisoners have already contracted COVID-19 may have actually bumped them down the list to receive the vaccine. They likely have some immunity to COVID-19 already, according to Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. It’s an unfortunate reality the committee had to weigh, she said.
“I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish that we were able to protect people before they had been exposed to the disease and the numbers,” she said. “But that played a role in that conversation about where are we at.”
And before prisons are safe to receive visitors, inmates will have to agree to be vaccinated. Zink said that because of the fraught history of medical care in prisons and for people of color, the state is expecting some hesitancy there.
“There’s been a lot of time and effort that’s been put on that,” she said. “We want to make sure that inmates are informed and have the data and information they need to make the decision.”
Diane Boyd said her husband is among those skeptical about getting vaccinated. She said he’s read about bad side-effects, despite large scale studies showing the vaccine is safe and effective.
But, she said, he also realizes that it might be the only way to return to normalcy. Pre-COVID, he had a job inside the prison’s infirmary.
“He just said this to me this morning, ‘Excuse me. I’ll take it if it means that I can go back to work’,” she said.