As of Wednesday evening, at least seven staff members at Lemon Creek Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19 since last week. Most of them are correctional officers.
The Alaska Department of Corrections says it’s following federal and state health guidelines to test staff and inmates who may have had contact with the infected individuals.
Lemon Creek Correctional Center has over 200 male and female inmates. As of Wednesday, four have been tested for COVID-19. All results came back negative.
Meanwhile, nearly half of the facility’s staff have been tested.
Sidney Wood is the director of institutions for the Department of Corrections. He said they’re following guidance from the state Division of Public Health and Section of Epidemiology.
“We’re not determining who gets tested,” Wood said. “They’re identifying those folks, with our assistance, and then they’re determining if they need to be tested.”
Wood said all staff who are tested for COVID-19 have to wait for clearance from state health officials before returning to work.
He said one reason fewer inmates are being tested may have to do with the fact that they have limited contact with anyone outside their dorms units, which can house up to 26 people.
The state suspended visitors last month and started screening all staff for symptoms before their shifts. Inmates are allowed out of their dorms only for recreation on the yard.
“To the best of our ability, we’re not allowing them to recreate or eat together,” Wood said. “So we’re staggering it as best we can.”
Jeremy Simile is an inmate at the facility. Right now, he’s confined to his dorm with 14 other men for almost the entire day.
“When we go outside, we’re expected to wear our mask and practice social distancing, and the (correctional officers) are doing a pretty good job of enforcing that when we’re outside,” Simile said. “That’s really our only recreation, our only opportunity to get out … and relieve some tension.”
But they’re not completely cut off: Meals are being delivered to their dorm by someone from another dorm, and Simile said correctional officers walk through every 15 minutes.
He’s also concerned about the lack of cleaning supplies.
“They said in the newspaper that they’ve given us extra hygiene stuff and that they’ve given us extra cleaning supplies, and that’s a lie, that has not happened,” Simile said. “We’ve got the same stuff that we began with before the outbreak.”
He said they get three bottles of bleach each day to clean their dorm. On Wednesday, the bottles that arrived were mostly water.
He complained to staff, but he was still waiting for bleach hours later. He’s been trying to keep his space sanitized, since they sleep in bunk beds 4 feet apart.
“So to be able to assume that if you infect one, you infect all in a pod like this is not far-fetched,” he said.
Wood said inmates and staff across the state have been issued two masks each — one to wear and one to wash after wearing. Simile said his dorm has only received one mask each. They’re expected to clean it themselves.
Simile said there was no formal announcement to inmates about the new cases of COVID-19 among staff this week. He learned about them from his fiance when he called her, and from news sources. He said he asked a correctional officer about it, who confirmed the information.
Right now, he said the mood in his dorm is mostly fear and frustration. There’s a feeling of powerlessness.
“The fear of dying alone with someone that you don’t know in a jail cell, it’s pretty intense,” he said. “And the fact that we don’t have very much that we can do about it is pretty crazy.”
At least one inmate at the facility was in quarantine on Tuesday. Wood said he did not know whether that person had been tested yet or was awaiting results.
The Department of Corrections did not answer a follow-up question about that inmate before the end of the day Wednesday.