Behind bars, Alaska inmates and corrections staff brace for virus

Lemon Creek Correctional Center
Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Alaska’s jails or prisons. But as of Wednesday, there had only been two tests conducted, both of which came back negative, according to the state’s Department of Corrections.

Meantime, the department has put several new policies in place in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading among inmates or staff.

“Social distancing in a correctional setting is a challenge, but we’re really doing the best that we can,” Corrections spokeswoman Sarah Gallagher said.

The department has suspended all visitation and is instead offering inmates two free 15-minute phone calls per week to keep up with family and friends on the outside. And while cellmates are, of course, still in close proximity to each other, the department has suspended any group activity outside of cells that involves more than 10 people.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has asked that corrections staff supplement those activities. Gallagher said they are offering other programming.

“They’re doing other things,” she said. “We have encouraged superintendents to, kind of, increase recreational activity, whether it’s showing more movies and having popcorn in the housing units to kind of fill that time.”

The department is also having inmates produce personal protective equipment for use by medical professionals outside prison walls by sewing gowns and surgical masks, Gallagher said.

The ACLU of Alaska also called on the department to allow hand sanitizer in its facilities to keep up good hygiene.

Gallagher said that because hand sanitizer has alcohol in it, and alcohol is banned within correctional institutions, that is not an option. But the department is providing inmates with free bars of soap, which they would otherwise have to pay for, and encouraging more hand-washing, she said.

Current plans call for anyone showing symptoms of coronavirus to be given a surgical mask, taken to a medical unit and isolated while awaiting results, Gallagher said. That person’s housing unit would also be quarantined from the rest of the facility’s population, she said.

If the inmate’s test is negative, the quarantine will be lifted, Gallagher said. If it comes back positive, the inmate will be treated by medical staff and their housing unit will remain under quarantine for 14 days to monitor the other inmates for symptoms, she said.

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