Tuesday, May 5, 2020
Clayton received a call from a good friend at Goose Creek Correctional Center (GCCC) on Saturday, April 25th, with grave news--an inmate at the facility had tested positive for Coronavirus (COVID-19) in H Mod and the entire housing unit was on lockdown. This was disturbing. Not only because of the obvious difficulties containing the spread of a virus in a crowded facility, but also because, due to budget related decisions, sanitation had already deteriorated severely at GCCC mere months before.
A History of Bad Health Practices
In early July, 2019, sanitation at GCCC became a major source of panic among prisoners and their families without the scare of a global pandemic. The prison had begun rationing cleaning supplies including basic hand soap, toilet paper and even the cleaners used for bathroom surfaces, needed to prevent the spread of infection and illness. This created a need for prisoners to self-purchase and even hoard items that were otherwise being withheld to achieve even basic cleanliness. With virulent communicable conditions like MRSA and Hepatitis frequently being placed into the population, the problem was a serious health risk not only to the inmates within the facility, but to the communities they returned to. The Allisons as well as other inmates and families were fighting for a return to normal institutional sanitation practices.
Then something amazing happened. Clayton’s appeal overturned his conviction, and he returned home to his family on September 4, 2019. This was an exciting time for his family, but the timing also provided a rare opportunity.
Months before, when Mrs. Allison had reached out to her local legislator--Representative Cathy Tilton--about the sanitation concerns as well as long-standing medical neglect within the facility, Rep. Tilton had helped schedule a conversation with the Commissioner and staff of DOC. Clayton returned home in time to attend the meeting in person, and explain in detail as an eyewitness to what was happening within the facility!
After the meeting, the Allison’s followed up with specifics on a second major concern--long-standing medical neglect. This neglect had specifically left inmates suffering severe symptoms of illness and infection for days or weeks before even being seen. Often illnesses were ignored until they resolved on their own when more suffering and spread would have been avoidable. Even when treated, inmates were provided little to no information about their condition or instruction on what they should do to help recovery. Both inmates with acute and chronic conditions were sometimes forced to go without prescribed essential medications. DOC staff reacted to this news as if it was something they had not heard before, yet the State had lost a lawsuit filed by a former Spring Creek inmate who suffers permanent paralysis from an untreated infection mere months before, and they had lost another suit like this years in the past.
The Allisons attended a follow up meeting to address both issues--which the Commissioner and the GCCC representative did not attend--where they were told by staff that the “issues had been resolved.” Yet, no concrete information was provided on HOW the issues had been resolved. On the issues of medical neglect and providing inmates with information about their own health status and treatment options, they were simply told that “staff had been talked to.” The response to the sanitation rationing was the same. The “issue has been corrected.” There were no details given on steps that had been taken, policy changes, employee training, or responses from facility management. It was a very hollow answer to a very serious danger to health and safety. The history of bad health practices clearly extends across multiple Alaska DOC facilities.
Mods (housing units) are being segregated from one another for recreation and meals, which is an incredible complication for both inmates and staff, making processes like meals take hours more than normal. However, as is illustrated by the COVID-19 crisis in prisons across the country, there is no way for inmates to social distance within their own mods so the infection can burn through the crowded population incredibly fast. It was also pointed out that the mods are still being mingled through inmate workers--such as kitchen workers. Inmates all come together to provide meals for the facility and work in tight quarters before returning home to their mods. This situation makes it nearly impossible to keep the mods from mingling.
DOC has also expressed that they are “adhering to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for cleaning and disinfection during the COVID-19 response. Sufficient stocks of cleaning supplies are on hand, though not unlimited, and are being provided to inmates as needed.” We can only hope that since the discussions around sanitation in September and November, this is actually happening. One inmate working in environmental services (ES) has expressed major concern about the sanitation of the Special Management Unit (SMU) Mod. The SMU has become the new quarantine mod for segregating inmates that test positive or who are awaiting test results. Yet, the ES worker said that they were not being given any special cleaning supplies to use, and they were highly concerned about catching the illness themselves. This is another example of inmate workers navigating between one mod and another.
A fairly simple action that may limit person-to-person spread of the virus, is requiring the use of face masks. DOC told a local advocate for inmates that they “can also confirm that all inmates have each been issued at least one cloth face mask.” No doubt this looks different from one facility to another, but we now know how it is being facilitated at GCCC. Inmates are being hired into temporary positions--paid at a higher wage than normal to make the position attractive--and provided all the equipment and supplies to make face masks within the mods. We have been able to confirm that in at least one mod, inmates had each been provided with two masks.
Initially DOC stated, “It is the department’s expectation that DOC institutional staff wear cloth face masks while inside the facility. Incidents of specific staff refusing to wear face masks would be addressed by the appropriate supervisor.”
Yet, this is NOT happening at GCCC. As of the call last Saturday, staff were explaining to inmates that it was not mandatory for guards to wear face masks, although some of them do. As of yesterday, some mods were reporting that not a single guard was wearing one. The same advocate who followed up on the issue of face masks was told later that it is up to the direct supervisors whether or not staff are required to wear face masks. These staff travel from mod to mod throughout the facility daily--undoing the effectiveness of segregating the mods at a staff level as well as the mix occurring with inmate workers.
The current Superintendent at GCCC is Earl Houser, and concerns about the COVID-19 situation can be sent to him at email@example.com.