HELENA — Hundreds more people in Montana’s prisons and correctional facilities will have access to coronavirus testing starting today, a significant increase from the total of 31 inmates and offenders that have received a test so far.

The state Department of Corrections said this week that 772 tests per month will be available for inmates and staff who are asymptomatic. That’s in addition to diagnostic testing for anyone exhibiting symptoms, according to spokeswoman Carolynn Bright, which is the policy DOC said it has so far followed in accordance with CDC guidelines.

To date, three DOC and contract staff have tested positive for COVID-19, in addition to one person at the Gallatin County Detention Center and one at the Gallatin County Re-Entry Program facility in Bozeman.

“I will say that, at this point, has been our greatest success, or one of our greatest successes,” said DOC Director Reginald Michael during a May 12 teleconference appearance before the Law and Justice Interim Committee. “Not many of our states have numbers similar to the numbers you see in front of you,” he said.

Bright later clarified that the DOC itself has not tested correctional staff, but that approximately 17 employees have received tests from their personal care providers. 

Lawmakers on the committee were quick to note that the low number of confirmed cases is likely a result of having conducted so few tests. 

“It’s good to see that we have such low tests proving positive now, but given that we have tested so few, that is very, I think, misleading,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. “My question to the director is: What is your general plan when those tests come back, more universal testing, and we find a much higher level of presence of this virus?”

“I hope we don’t see that,” Michael responded. “But if we do, we’ll go into a process of separation,” he said, adding that the department is considering purchasing trailers to create isolation space for infected inmates.

Across the country, criminal justice reform advocates and researchers have spent months raising alarms about the vulnerability of inmates and staff in the case of a coronavirus outbreak inside a correctional facility. In Texas, more than two dozen prisoners and staff have died from the disease. Texas has tested less than 2% of its prison population since March; 72% of those tests have come back positive.

“States and counties vary widely in how much they’re testing for coronavirus. But in places that are doing universal testing, they’re finding very high rates of infection,” said Wanda Bertram, communications director with the Prison Policy Initiative, a research group tracking state responses to COVID-19. 

“And what that corroborates is the fact that within prisons and jails, the virus spreads very quickly,” she said. “So it’s likely that even though there have been very few reported positive cases in Montana prisons so far, the virus is already spreading very fast, especially if those prisons are overcrowded.”

“It’s good to see that we have such low tests proving positive now, but given that we have tested so few, that is very, I think, misleading.”

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula

In Montana, where 3,140 people were incarcerated in 2018, correctional facilities and county jails are often reported to be at capacity or overcrowded. Nationwide, Bertram said, those environmental factors make it exceptionally hard for inmates and staff to abide by social-distancing and diligent hygiene standards.

“People are just not able to take space from each other, [partly because] daily activities that you do in a prison are mediated by correctional staff who are escorting you places,” Bertram said. “So the constant flow of people through the facility and the flow of people who are working there, in and out of the facility, both accelerate the spread of the virus.”

In April, under a directive from Gov. Steve Bullock, all in-person visitation to correctional facilities in Montana was suspended. Staff members were also required to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before entering, and inmate transfers between facilities were limited. 

One preventative measure that some states are taking, and that many advocates have pushed for, is to aggressively winnow the number of people being held in jails and prisons by expediting parole and sentence commutations. 

In Montana, only eight inmates have been released on early parole, according to Annette Carter, chair of the Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP). That’s out of more than 200 who are considered eligible under guidelines set by Bullock, which focus on inmates who are elderly, have high-risk medical conditions, are pregnant, or are nearing their release date. Ninety-one additional inmates were released on parole in April as part of the normal review process. 

“I think the term we’re all using is, we’re doing a trickle,” Carter said. “You know, we’re trickling people out, just because we want to make sure that we’re keeping everybody safe,” she said, explaining that BOPP is also considering the safety of the general public.

“The people that are in prison [have] shown that that they’ve caused harm in the community. That’s why they’re there,” she said. “And so we want to make sure that they’ve addressed their risks and needs that they’ve had, that they have a true change in conduct.”

The process of gaining eligibility for parole, however, has also been stalled by COVID-19. Some of the group programs within correctional facilities that are required for parole now have reduced capacity for participants in order to comply with social distancing guidelines. Without increased programming, the backlog of people waiting for a spot increases.

Even for some inmates who have already been granted parole, Carter said, release has been delayed because the coronavirus has disrupted treatment plans and services they were scheduled to receive upon leaving. 

“If we release somebody that doesn’t have the resources, that isn’t ready for release, doesn’t have their programming in place, and then they end up back in county jail, it would become a vicious cycle,” Carter explained.

Bertram said measures to address such issues are available, such as using vacant hotels and motels for transitional housing and setting up virtual reentry programming for parolees.

“That’s the kind of innovation that would enable people to be let out and held within a much safer environment while not posing a threat to community safety,” she said.

“I think, at the end of the day, the question should be, what is the obstacle? What is the hold up to finding some way to work around these challenges?” she said. “Why is it so hard to figure out some kind of fix in order to save people’s lives?”

If the DOC’s increased testing results in a spike of confirmed cases over the next several weeks, criminal justice advocates in Montana are urging state officials to act swiftly. In March, the ACLU of Montana outlined widespread action available at the county and state level, including immediately commuting sentences for technical supervision violations or for inmates whose sentences are set to end within a year.

“We have been calling for weeks for Governor Bullock, the Board of Pardons and Parole, and the DOC to begin releasing vulnerable inmates in order to prevent COVID spread not only amongst incarcerated people, but amongst staff and the surrounding communities,” said SK Rossi, the group’s advocacy and policy director. “If increased testing reveals increased infections — and we hope that is not the case — the spread will be the result of indifference and apathy.”

Bullock’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This story was updated May 15, 2020, to correct the number of tests now available per month to asymptomatic inmates and staff. The number is 772, not 774. It was updated May 26, 2020, to correct the location of two positive COVID cases in state Department of Corrections facilities. The story previously stated that both cases were identified at the Gallatin County Detention Center. In fact, one was identified at the detention center and the other was identified at the Gallatin County Re-entry Program in Bozeman.

Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.