State DOC reports higher vaccination rates than state among incarcerated persons

The department also reported 33 new cases at the state prison

By: - September 16, 2021 7:40 pm

Montana Department of Corrections

The Montana Department of Corrections reported higher vaccination rates among incarcerated people than the statewide average and said since early August, 19 staff and 14 incarcerated people at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge tested positive for COVID-19 as the state inside and outside of correctional facilities struggles with rising infections driven by the delta variant.

“Since this latest uptick in COVID cases, Montana State Prison noted its first new case among staff members on Aug. 4, and among inmates on Aug. 16,” said department spokesperson Carolynn Bright in an email. No cases have been reported at the Montana Women’s Prison, she said.

The news of the outbreak was first reported by the Montana State News Bureau, which also reported the state prison was able to keep the virus under control for most of the summer, only reporting one incarcerated person who was hospitalized due to complications of the virus in August but since recovered.

The vaccination rates inside the prisons are 60 percent at the state prison in Deer Lodge and 64 percent at the women’s prison, Bright said. That compares to the statewide average of 51 percent. Due to recently passed legislation, the DOC can not mandate or track the vaccination status of its employees.

As hospitals across the state continue to fill and some enter critical care status, the state reported 1,096 new cases Thursday, bringing the active case count to 9,130 and the seven-day average of new cases to 820, the highest mark since Dec. 10, 2020. There were also 355 active hospitalizations across the state on Thursday.

During the peaks of the pandemic, the Montana State Prison, which chronically struggles with a staff shortage, had to bring in the national guard for support. While Bright said COVID-19 infections could result in shortages, she said the prison has been able to deploy staff to key posts to ensure appropriate coverage and has an emergency staffing plan in place if necessary. Bright could not disclose specifics of the plan due to safety reasons but said, “for example, the COVID-19 plan may involve work quarantine for employees as defined through Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and consultation with (the state health department) and local health departments.”

Additionally, Bright said during peaks of the pandemic, DOC worked with Montana Disaster and Emergency Services and private vendors to attain the personal protection equipment it needs to operate under pandemic conditions. During that time, Montana Correctional Enterprises also manufactured 22,906 pieces of PPE, including face shields, disposable gowns, and 3D gowns that would be available for use if conditions climb to what they were last winter.

Incarcerated people who test positive for the infection are required to isolate but are not put into solitary confinement, according to Bright. “COVID-19-positive inmates are temporarily isolated in their own cells, or medical isolation cells, with opportunity for out-of-cell time separate from inmates who are not infected. Also, in cases where multiple inmates in the same pod are infected, the DOC temporarily isolates inmates as a cohort. This means inmates in the pod may access the pod’s dayroom, recreate outside as a group separate from inmates who are not infected, etc.,” she said.

Employees who test positive are told to stay away from the workplace until they are tested for the virus; if the test is positive, the employee must isolate for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status, Bright said.

The department is also taking extra measures to screen staff and employees for the virus, including temperature checks, symptom surveys and close contact questionnaires.

“MSP (Montana State Prison) employees are encouraged to self-screen every day before their shifts for COVID-19-related symptoms. All visitors (volunteers, family and friends of inmates) are screened before entering the facility. Inmates transferring to MSP from county jails and other locations are screened before leaving their facility of origin, and again on arrival at MSP. New inmate arrivals at MSP are offered the opportunity to take a COVID-19 test. These processes are enforced for all individuals no matter what their vaccination status,” Bright said. She said that the prison also continues to refer to guidance from the CDC and is regularly in communication with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Staff and people incarcerated at the facility can also request to be tested, and “voluntary sentinel testing (of non-symptomatic inmates) at the facility has been increased in order to better monitor virus activity,” she said.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .