RAWLINS — A prison is like a small, contained city. In normal times, inmates go to work, do activities, attend church services and have access to mental health and substance abuse programming.
But the coronavirus pandemic has affected the Wyoming State Penitentiary, and daily life there, as much as it has anywhere else in 2020.
The prison is on its third round of surveillance testing after an outbreak was detected inside the correctional facility this summer, Wyoming State Penitentiary, Warden Michael Harlow said. The first round of testing yielded around 27 positive COVID-19 cases among inmates.
“At that point we started to reduce movement, and that is done in an effort to reduce that spread. We started to look at the whole operation and started to look at the mixing of pods and the mixing of groups and traveling around the facility,” Harlow said.
The Penitentiary began social distancing by “quad-ing,” or allowing only a portion of each housing pod out of their cells at any given time. The Penitentiary is home to a daily average of 575-590 inmates, and each pod houses 80 people. When quad-ing, 20 inmates were let into the pod at a time.
A second round of testing revealed more than a 100 percent increase in cases, for a total of 60 positives. At that point, the prison went into a lockdown.
“Two weeks ago, we had a total of 60 positives,” Harlow said. “At that point, we tightened even more.”
The decision to go into a lockdown is not made by the prison alone. Kim Deti with the Wyoming Department of Health said that at the beginning of the pandemic, her agency shared guidance from CDC intended for correctional facilities with the Department of Corrections.
“We found they were already preparing and doing much of what CDC recommended from the beginning,” Deti said. “We’ve also worked with them to consult in general about COVID-19 and provide some training on contact tracing.”
Beginning in July, the Department of Health started offering surveillance testing for each of the state correctional facilities. Harlow has weekly or sometimes more frequent phone calls with the Department of Health and Corizon, the health care provider for the Wyoming Department of Corrections.
“They do have a lot of input in regards to the things we do to mitigate the spread,” Harlow said.
Under normal circumstances, inmates work in the kitchen, the laundry and even a barber shop.
“Most of the work—preparing the food, laundry, giving haircuts—the inmate population does that, and the staff oversee to make sure rules and regulations are followed,” Harlow said. “They are locked down at night, but in the morning after count, they are let out to breakfast. They go to work and school and rec and all those things. That is what they would do throughout the course of a normal day.”
Right now, inmates are let out of their cells once a day for 15 minutes for a phone call or a shower. If they shower on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they get a phone call on Tuesday and Thursday. Occupants of one cell, or two inmates, are let out at a time, cycling through the inmates in the facility all day.
“The inmates are being well taken care of. Is it an ideal situation? No. Is it different than normal? Absolutely. But they are not being denied any of those essential needs that they have,” Harlow said, adding that there are medical and mental health professionals walking the pods, aware of issues among the inmate population.
“If we identify someone who is having an issue, it is going to be addressed. We are not going to let somebody with a medical issue just stay in a cell because Covid is on and they are locked up. We wouldn’t operate that way, and we are not operating that way,” he said.
Harlow said he has tried to keep inmates updated, doing “walk-throughs” and listening to concerns. He also circulated a memo to each prisoner about the pandemic and resulting conditions, and posts information on the dedicated inmate television channel for display.
“We avoid lockdowns at all costs. The inmates need to be able to get out, they need to be able to go outside and go to work and to activities and programs,” Harlow said. “They need to be able to do all those things … lockdown is not something that we do unless it is absolutely necessary, and in this situation it is absolutely necessary.”
Advocacy groups have called for reductions in inmate numbers to curb the spread of COVID-19, but Mark Horan with Wyoming Department of Corrections said the DOC does not have the authority to grant early release to inmates.
“We're aware of the push among other states to release inmates early on account of the pandemic,” Horan said. “Those decisions would have to come from the Wyoming Board of Parole, or via a sentence commutation granted by the Governor's Office.”
The DOC’s mission is to provide for public safety and offender rehabilitation through programming opportunities, including a pre-parole program designed to help inmates become productive law-abiding citizens upon their release.