Del. Dept. of Corrections addresses COVID-19 concerns from community
DELAWARE – Concerns have been spreading throughout Delaware’s community about the safety of inmates amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Prisons are a congregate living facility and it’s very easy to transmit viruses – especially airborne viruses – in those cramped facilities,” said Executive Director of the ACLU of Delaware Mike Brickner.
But the Delaware Department of Corrections says it’s doing everything it can to slow and eventually stop the spread, while providing necessities that inmates need. “There’s a lot of frustration in the community about inmates getting COVID. When there is this large of a community spread, it is somewhat inevitable that we’re going to have COVID cases,” said Delaware DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis.
Comm. DeMatteis says one of the key things to remember about the Del. DOC’s efforts to stop the spread, is that more than 730 inmates that were infected with COVID-19 recovered completely. “This isn’t something that’s out of control. It’s very manageable. The Department of Corrections has a great healthcare team, and we are getting these inmates recovered,” said Comm. DeMatteis.
Despite that, the ACLU of Delaware says they’ve received countless emails and letters from inmates and family members who allege overcrowding in quarantine units. Brickner says the complaints also center around unavailability of commissary and personal hygiene items. “Those things should just be provided for free to people who are in quarantine. If you’re sick with COVID-19, providing those basic hygiene things is just a simple human decency,” said Brickner.
Comm. DeMatteis says commodities like commissary and personal hygiene are fully available to prisoners. She says that claims like this are nothing new amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “We can see offenders saying ‘We’re purposely saying we’re not getting any commissary,’ or ‘We’re purposely doing this so that the news media runs with it,'” said Comm. DeMatteis.
Meanwhile, Brickner says as health experts continue to warn about another COVID-19 surge, more proactive measures need to be taken by the DOC. “We’re likely to see even more people become infected with COVID-19 in our prison system. So we need to get ahead of it by making sure we have plans to get more hygiene, keep communication going, and keep the prison functioning,” said Brickner.
The ACLU of Delaware says that includes the DOC to implementing widespread testing for all inmates and staff. “If you’re only trying to do proactive testing based off of contact tracing or doing sort of scatter shot proactive testing, you’re never going to have a true picture of how many people are positive,” said Brickner.
Brickner says that widespread testing needs to cover both inmates and correctional facility staff. “We’re not just talking about about people who are incarcerated. We’re also talking about all of the people who go into the prisons every day, and then come back out to the community in Delaware,” said Brickner.
But Comm. DeMatteis says it’s not that simple. She says the DOC’s three unions that represent corrections and probation officers do not allow for mandatory testing. So, the DOC is providing free testing kits for officers. “They’re in an area where they walk by every day to get to and from their post the test kits are there. It’s a saliva based test, so it’s not the invasive nose test,” said Comm. DeMatteis.
The commissioner adds that the DOC is working on finding new ways to make sure that the spread of COVID-19 is minimal. That includes investing in new cleaning technology and improving HVAC systems. “We are not tied to one way of doing it and we learn every single day from medical experts, from correctional experts across the country, and from our own experience,” said Comm. DeMatteis.