North Dakota corrections officials have temporarily suspended prison admissions after a rise in coronavirus cases at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck.
The prison on Tuesday had as many as 66 positive COVID-19 cases among its approximate 600 inmates and 21 cases among its more than 270 staff. The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation conducted about 1,600 tests of staff and inmates in its Jamestown and Bismarck facilities earlier this week.
No staff or inmates had died or been hospitalized as of Tuesday, according to State Correctional Health Authority Dr. John Hagan.
“We’ve been very, very fortunate ... across all of our facilities, we have not seen a serious illness or hospitalization due to COVID,” he said. “It indicates we’re doing our job.”
Cases began to noticeably rise around Oct. 12 amid rising infections in the community, which staff face, Hagan said.
“The good news is we’re starting to see them tail off, it looks like,” he said. “It looks like the steps that folks have taken have really contained it so far, which is a real blessing.”
The State Penitentiary on Thursday had 37 positives among inmates and 22 among staff.
When the pandemic emerged in North Dakota in March, state corrections officials implemented sweeping measures to mitigate the virus. All staff since March have worn masks and eye shields.
Inmates who live and work in different areas of the penitentiary must wear masks. Inmates are separated into housing groups, or pods. The same staff work with the same inmates to avoid “continually cross-mixing everybody,” Hagan said.
Those mitigation efforts with early masking and frequent testing have been “the tools that allow us to have a low rate of infection compared to the community around us,” he said.
Positive inmates are individually isolated and evaluated by medical staff two or three times a day, or more if needed. Inmates who are close contacts are quarantined in separate spaces and asked to wear masks when outside of their rooms. Compliance has been “very good,” Hagan said.
New wastewater testing holds some promise as to correlating presence of the virus with oral testing. Hagan said the wastewater testing could decrease the department’s amount of continuous testing.
Due to the rising cases at the State Penitentiary, the department on Oct. 19 suspended admissions of inmates and has been staging them in county jails until admissions can be resumed safely.
“Our rationale was that to bring people into facilities that have a higher infection rate than that they’re leaving is really inappropriate to them,” Hagan said.
In-person visitation across facilities also has been suspended.
The department had been accepting up to 90 people every five to six weeks during the pandemic.
Male admissions go through the penitentiary. From there, some end up in other facilities, such as the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown and the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck.
Female state prisoners are held at the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England. As of Tuesday, 31 deferred females were being held in county jails.
The state reimburses counties with federal CARES Act coronavirus aid for the housing. As of Tuesday, 159 people were in county jails deferred for the state.
That same day, the Burleigh-Morton Detention Center in Bismarck had 27 inmates held for the state, of the 256 people in jail. The jail at one point held as many as 54 state inmates.
Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben said those numbers are “abnormally high,” as inmates bound for prison would move there within a day or week.
“That is definitely an abnormal number, and in this environment has a big impact on our operation,” he said.
Leben said the holds have led to a lot of overtime expenses, which he said has fortunately been compensated by the state at a rate of $75 per day per inmate.
“Like I’ve said from day one, this isn’t about the money. Obviously it’s about us managing our facility and making sure that we can meet our needs without sacrificing our staff,” said Leben, who has been concerned about more inmates being sentenced as others move slowly through the jail to prison. The jail opened an additional housing pod to manage its pandemic situation plus state inmates.
Leben said he feels an added responsibility to help, with the State Penitentiary being in Burleigh County. He’s also considering adjusting the jail’s quarantine period for new arrivals if new rapid-result COVID-19 tests come into play.
The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department has “made a lot of progress in discussions” with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about concerns, he said. The jail on Friday took a transport of eight prisoners to the McKenzie County Correctional Facility in Watford City, which contracts with the state to house inmates.
“I think we have to work together, and I said even if they continue down a path with COVID where they’re getting into more problems, we’re going to work with them and help them to the best of our ability, just like we hope they would do that for us, if the situation was reversed,” the sheriff said.
North Dakota’s top corrections official said counties have been “a key partner.”
“Without their help we would really be backed into a corner on this thing,” interim Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Dave Krabbenhoft said. The state Department of Health also has been “unbelievably cooperative” in providing testing resources, he said.
More than 11,700 coronavirus tests have been administered to State Penitentiary inmates and staff.
About 100 total department staff on Tuesday were quarantined due to being close contacts, Krabbenhoft said — which has impacted the filling of shifts. The department has about 1,000 employees, 44 of whom were positive on Thursday.
“It means overtime for some folks if they’re able to work it. It means people doing jobs they typically wouldn’t be doing as far as helping out in the institutions, so that’s big,” Krabbenhoft said.
The department will continue testing, quarantines and isolation, and working with counties on staging admissions “and finding other solutions,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like COVID is going anywhere real soon,” Krabbenhoft said.