CHEYENNE – As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise in Wyoming, the state’s prisons and jails have changed their operations in precautionary steps to avoid spread of the virus.
But advocates say more needs to be done at the state level to prepare for a potential outbreak within Wyoming’s prisons, like those already occurring in states such as New York.
Last week, both the Wyoming Department of Corrections and the Laramie County jail temporarily suspended visitations to their facilities, and instituted some screening measures for staff and inmates.
Following the WDOC announcement of its suspension of visitations, the ACLU of Wyoming sent a letter Wednesday to several state officials, including Gov. Mark Gordon, asking for a more comprehensive plan from the department on what it will do to prevent a potential outbreak.
Antonio Serrano, organizer of the ACLU of Wyoming, received a response Thursday stating the Corrections Department was working on a plan, but that it would not be able to provide it publicly for the time being.
In an interview Thursday, Serrano said he was glad to hear some steps are being taken, but he wants plans to be made in the public eye.
“Now more than ever, Wyoming officials have a responsibility to have complete transparency and inform the community on exactly what measures are being taken,” Serrano said. “A broad statement just saying basically ‘trust us’ is not enough during this global crisis that still is yet to hit Wyoming at full force.”
While Wyoming had just 55 confirmed cases as of Thursday afternoon, there should be a high sense of urgency to safeguard the state’s prisons and jails, Serrano argued.
“If they wait until there’s an actual infection in the prison, it’s too late,” he said.
The enhanced screening announced last week requires WDOC staff and other contractors to have their temperatures taken and to fill out a health questionnaire before entering a facility. Serrano wondered how effective those measures can be by themselves.
“I’m sorry, but folks got to pay the bills,” Serrano said. “They might fake on a questionnaire so they can get to work and pay the bills. … I’m not saying everyone will do that, but that’s the problem right now.”
With the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and the women’s prison in Lusk, a potential outbreak could put more stress on already strained rural health care centers. Even changes already made by the department – like its limitation of legal visits to only phone and video conferences – raise questions.
“Do they have the capability to provide that service to the detainees? Do they have enough computers or whatever else they need to make sure that everyone who needs legal advice can get it?” Serrano asked. “That’s something we’re concerned about.”
With regard to testing, the WDOC update from last week states “WDOC’s health services team has developed a specific protocol for COVID-19 screening, testing and infection control that they are updating regularly.” The specifics of that protocol remained unclear as of Thursday.
WDOC spokesman Mark Horan said Thursday that prison officials are working under the best-practice guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wyoming Department of Health.
“We will isolate and test anyone who has symptoms, identified through self-reporting or by others such as security or medical staff,” Horan said in an email.
Asked whether the department may implement a facility lockdown if the virus were to spread, Horan responded that “phased contingency plans are in place,” with no additional details.
So far, the governor’s COVID-19 task force focused on health has not discussed the potential issues facing the state’s prison system, according to Wyoming Medical Society Executive Director Sheila Bush, who serves on the task force.
“It feels like everything within the prison system is very much a separate world. Not to say that our society isn’t equally concerned with that population,” Bush said. “It’s just not an area where we have a lot of jurisdiction or authority.”
Closer to home
At the local level, some county law enforcement, including Laramie County’s, have taken precautions to reduce risk of the virus’s spread in their facilities.
The Laramie County jail doesn’t plan to release any inmates, as other states, such as Oklahoma, have done, but it’s been preparing for a potential outbreak in southeast Wyoming.
Capt. Don Hollingshead, who presides over the jail, said he had been talking to his staff for weeks about how to make sure the inmates and jail staff are safe when it started looking like COVID-19 would affect the United States.
About a week ago, the jail stopped allowing inmate visitations from the public and required any vendor coming into the jail to have their temperature checked before they enter, and to wear a mask and other personal protection equipment.
“Our vendor that supplies us with telephone services has graciously agreed – and done this nationwide to all of their customers – they are giving inmates two free phone calls per week,” he said. “No charge to the inmate or the inmate’s family or the facility, to help out during the crisis.”
Hollingshead said the jail orders masks and other protection equipment in bulk, so they have plenty of supplies for now. He added that when inmates go to court, they also wear masks to ensure their safety. Those masks are then disposed of in a biohazard container.
Every member of the staff is also having their temperature checked before they go into a secured area and start their shift, he said. He added that if someone has come in contact with another person who is symptomatic of the novel coronavirus, then they stay home on paid sick leave.
The jail is still accepting people for incarceration, Hollingshead said, and they have seen a reduction in the jail population.
David Inman, Cheyenne Police Department public information officer, said CPD officers are being encouraged to write citations instead of conducting arrests whenever possible. He added that CPD’s calls for service have gone down, but said he couldn’t speak to whether there was an overall crime drop.
Linda Gesell, Laramie County Sheriff’s Department public information officer, said the department is issuing citations for most misdemeanors. For felonies, domestic violence and violation of a protection or stalking order, deputies are still making arrests.
Everyone who is arrested and goes into the jail is evaluated to make sure they’re not displaying virus symptoms. They also must undergo temperature checks and are asked other pertinent questions. If anyone is in respiratory distress, they’re sent to the hospital to be cleared before entering the jail.
Hollingshead emphasized that no one in the jail has been tested for COVID-19 or had displayed symptoms as of Thursday. He said if that were to occur, they have quarantine procedures that they would follow. However, at this time, inmates are still allowed their regular out-of-cell time in their pods. All jail programs, such as AA and other services, have been temporarily suspended.
“We have a very robust mental health staff that keeps track of the inmates and the kind of mood of the facility,” Hollingshead said. “When we see issues that need to be addressed, our mental health staff goes and visits them. So we’re being as proactive as we can to ensure that the mental health and wellness of being of the inmates, as well as the facility, are taken into account. Because I’m sure they’re stressed, as well as everybody else in the general public, so we’re trying to ensure that they have their questions answered, as well.”
Attorneys also aren’t being allowed to have face-to-face visits with their clients, but inmates can still access their attorneys via videoconferencing, he said. If it’s urgent, they also allow attorneys to access their clients in a booking room, which separates them by a piece of glass.
Hollingshead encouraged people to practice social distancing. He said by doing this, it minimizes exposure and the potential that someone entering the facility could spread COVID-19 into it.