How Mississippi prisons are preparing for coronavirus

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Utah Department of Corrections

A file photo of a prison unit.

No COVID-19 cases have been reported in Mississippi prisons as of Thursday morning, but the state is taking precautions in light of the highly contagious virus, says the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

MDOC posted a list of frequently asked questions and answers to its website Wednesday. According to the Q&A, some of the agency’s steps include:

  • Having inmates use the sick call system to access medical staff, and quarantining or isolating symptomatic patients.
  • Screening correctional staff’s temperature. Staff with a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will not be allowed to work.
  • Installing additional hand sanitizer stations throughout facilities and in dining halls.
  • Suspending programming and approved leave for inmates, such as travel to funerals or wakes.
  • Limiting transfers between MDOC facilities.
  • Suspending inmate work crews, out-of-state travel for people on probation or parole, and work for restitution center residents.

Healthcare personnel have been provided N95 masks and personal protective equipment, said MDOC Chief Medical Officer Gloria Perry in a statement: “In the event of a COVID-19 positive patient, the patient will receive an N95 mask. Correctional officers and staff posted in infirmary areas and clinic areas will be provided surgical masks and gloves for use while on post.”

The system is not on lockdown, MDOC said. Release procedures have not changed, and people on probation or parole are still required to report to their supervising agents. Legal visits are still allowed.

The agency announced earlier that visitation and inmate transfers from county jails have been suspended, and that several job fairs for correctional officers were canceled. The state’s prison phone contractor, Global Tel*Link, is providing up to 10 minutes of free phone calls weekly for each prisoner through April 13; phone calls are typically 3 cents a minute, not including fees.

MDOC Communications Director Grace Fisher did not respond to emailed questions about whether any staff or inmates have been tested for COVID-19; whether the state is waiving the $6 co-pay for inmate-initiated medical requests; whether canteen has been suspended or whether the state is providing additional soap or cleaning supplies directly to inmates; or whether there is a designated isolation room at each facility.

[Update: As of Thursday afternoon, the agency said medical co-pays for any inmate have been waived.]

A spokesperson for Management & Training Corporation, a private contractor that operates three prisons for MDOC, said in an email that the company is screening staff and any visitors prior to entering facilities. The prisons are also suspending volunteer programs and disinfecting high-traffic spaces such as housing units, classrooms and recreation areas.

Still, some family members of prisoners told Mississippi Today they are not seeing proactive steps taken inside facilities.

“I’m scared,” said Teoshia Johnson, whose fiance is in Parchman. She said he has struggled to get timely medical attention in the past. “Everything’s pretty much the same. Nothing has changed at all.”

Many inmates are housed in open bay areas, where dozens of people share bunk beds in proximity to each other.

The MDOC said it is recommending staff and inmates follow health guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that social distance and hygiene protocols “are being followed as well as the avoidance of unnecessary groups or meetings of ten (10) or more.”

Public health experts have said that jails and prisons are hotbeds for infectious disease.

Earlier this week, Mississippi civil rights groups sent a letter to Gov. Tate Reeves, urging him to take action and plan for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in prisons and jails.

“Imprisoned and detained people are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19,” the letter reads. They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. Without the active engagement of those who administer the facility, they have little ability to learn about ongoing public health crises or to take necessary preventative measures if they do manage to learn of them.”

The letter calls for steps including creating adequate staffing plans and providing hygiene supplies, as well as releasing medically fragile and older adults and children, and eliminating probation and parole revocations for technical violations.

The parole board is still conducting business as usual, said state parole board chairman Steve Pickett in an interview Tuesday. Parole board members usually don’t physically interact with the inmates up for review, often using Skype instead, Pickett added. The board is also continuing to “have to do revocations,” he said.

“We’re not going to start just paroling everybody just because there’s a virus,” Pickett said. “That’s not what the parole board’s function is. We’re charged to review these cases and make decisions based on what’s in our estimation in the best interest of the state.”

Reform advocates, family members and prisoners themselves have long pointed to underlying issues at state prisons, including understaffing, poor facility conditions and inadequate healthcare. The Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into several facilities earlier this year.

Do you have a question about COVID-19 in Mississippi prisons or jails? Do you have information to share with a reporter? Please contact Michelle Liu at [email protected]