Credit: Flickr user m0122

Nine months since the coronavirus pandemic began afflicting the country, some of Montana’s most highly populated correctional facilities are swamped with disease spread that shows no sign of being contained. 

As of Friday, the Department of Corrections had recorded 261 positive cases among inmates at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and 114 among staff members. The prison is more than 85% full with roughly 1,400 inmates in custody. There are an additional 99 inmate and 21 staff cases at Montana Women’s Prison in Billings.

In the north-central part of the state, the privately run Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby has reported 260 cases among inmates and 49 among staff members. Those numbers are nearly a month old, recorded from testing conducted on October 8 and 9. A spokesman for CoreCivic, the company that runs the prison under a contract awarded by the state, confirmed that it has not since conducted any additional testing among inmates. 

“We continue to work closely with our government partners and the local/state health departments to determine the need for any additional testing,” said a CoreCivic spokesman in an emailed statement. 

Officials within the Department of Corrections and Gov. Bullock’s office have not identified specific origins of the respective outbreaks or communicated a comprehensive plan to contain the spread. Rather, department administrators point to their evolving efforts to implement precautionary strategies while keeping facilities functional. 

Montana State Prison, for example, is still accepting inmate transfers from county jails under certain restrictions. After arriving at the prison, DOC protocol calls for inmates to be screened for symptoms and offered a COVID-19 test before being quarantined for 14 days. DOC officials confirmed to Montana Free Press that due to space limitations some inmates have been quarantined in the high security locked housing unit. 

Some state administrators maintain that their policies, including health screenings for staff and newly transferred inmates and widespread testing, helped keep the virus from entering the prisons for several months earlier this year. 

“It’s an evolving situation. I think that we’re like the rest of the world — we’re learning a lot of new things as we go,” said Connie Winner, Clinical Services Divisions administrator for the corrections department. “I think that we’re doing a really great job.”

“The best way to prevent it from spreading through correctional facilities is to have them as minimally populated as possible. While states have taken some efforts [to reduce] their prison populations by a marginal to modest proportion, it’s really not enough to really depopulate to the point where social distancing is possible.”

Dr. Laura Hawks, public health researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin

“The best thing that we could do is take all the possible precautions that we did and at the same time plan for what happens if this does get into our facility,” Winner said. “And we had some pretty solid plans in place. So now we’re following those plans and we’re moving forward and taking care of all the people that we have who are sick and, you know, try to keep the rest healthy.”

Two inmates have died after contracting the virus while in DOC custody. Robert Gonzalez died at Montana State Prison on Oct. 24 after contracting COVID-19 pneumonia. Jeffory Alan Lafield died on Oct. 31, according to inmate death data released by DOC. A spokeswoman for the department later confirmed that an inmate died on Oct. 31 after being transported from Crossroads Correctional Center to a Great Falls hospital.”

According to the governor’s office, the rise in correctional cases and fatalities is just one repercussion of a surge in cases statewide. Bullock’s communication director said Montana has entered a new phase of the pandemic and everyone, including inmates and DOC employees, is struggling with that reality. 

But many inmates, their family members, attorneys and civil rights advocates argue that policies crafted by the Bullock administration and DOC have not sufficiently protected incarcerated people and prison employees. For months, the ACLU of Montana and local organizers pushed the state to take aggressive action before the virus took hold in corrections facilities, promoting the suspension of inmate transfers and the expedited release of certain inmates. Advocates have also said Bullock could have issued guidance to local law enforcement to restrict low-level arrests and prosecutions, thereby lessening the strain on crowded jails. 

Across the country, local and state officials have undertaken such initiatives to thin jail and prison populations during the pandemic. The Idaho Department of Corrections in August began moving inmates who had tested negative into temporary housing at a state military training facility in order to help create “safe zones” and consolidate housing for symptomatic people within prisons. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis took early action in March to allow for expedited release of certain inmates who were judged to be low risk for reoffending, resulting in at least 300 people exiting prisons as of September. Polis also made a direct appeal to local law enforcement officials to curb the number of arrests and warrants they issued so as to decrease the number of people taken into custody.

In Montana, state officials have yet to take comparable action. On April 1, Bullock issued a directive that, among other steps, temporarily limited inmate transfers between facilities and required a 14-day quarantine period upon arrival. He also instructed corrections officials to assist the Board of Pardons and Parole in considering early release for inmates who are 65 or older, those who have medical conditions that put them at high risk or are “medically frail,” inmates who are pregnant, or inmates nearing their release date. The order stipulated that such individuals should be considered for release only “so long as they do not pose a public safety risk and can have their medical and supervision needs adequately met in the community.”

Montana Free Press found only three inmates who have been granted parole based on those conditions, according to a review of monthly dispositions compiled by the Board of Pardons and Parole since April. An additional person was granted medical parole with COVID-19 listed as a factor the Board considered when evaluating his release. 

In a statement, BOPP chairwoman Annette Carter said the board is regularly reviewing cases of inmates who meet the criteria outlined in Bullock’s directive. 

Overall, the prison population has not dramatically decreased since the governor issued his directive. At the beginning of March, more than 1,600 people were housed at Montana State Prison, just over the facility’s capacity. In October, that number hovered just above 1,400. The count at Crossroads Correctional Center has dropped even less: as of Nov. 1 it held 576 inmates, down from 589 on March 1.

Doctors and public health officials around the country have said that depopulating jails and prisons is the most effective way to curb the spread of the virus, given the limited options for social distancing within facilities.  

“It’s an evolving situation. I think that we’re like the rest of the world — we’re learning a lot of new things as we go. I think that we’re doing a really great job.”

Connie Winner, Clinical Services Divisions administrator for the corrections department

“Any correctional facility is a nidus” — a focus of infection — “for a rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19. That’s been seen all over the country,” said Dr. Laura Hawks, a primary care physician and public health researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Generally speaking, there’s not good air circulation and because, generally speaking, any sort of social distancing measures are impossible. [Prison and jails] are just places that COVID really thrives, which means, unfortunately, it puts lives at risk.”

While some counties and states have taken modest steps to reduce inmate populations, others are taking more decisive action. New Jersey officials announced this week that more than 2,000 inmates would be released in one day, with 1,000 more slated to be released in the months ahead. The action applies only to prisoners convicted for crimes other than murder and sexual assault. 

“Again, the best way to prevent it from spreading through correctional facilities is to have them as minimally populated as possible,” Hawks said. “While states have taken some efforts [to reduce] their prison populations by a marginal to modest proportion, it’s really not enough to really depopulate to the point where social distancing is possible.”

For a period of time earlier in the pandemic, Montana State Prison more aggressively limited transfers from county jails. But that plan quickly received pushback from local jail officials struggling with their own overcrowding issues. In April, a district judge in Cascade County issued a series of orders requiring DOC to resume inmate transfers from the local jail. In June, DOC relaxed its restrictions on inmate transfers and began enacting its current policy.

Officials within the governor’s office and Montana State Prison told MTFP there are no current discussions about releasing more people from correctional facilities, or expanding infrastructure at the state prison to allow for better social distancing and quarantining. Bullock also intends to leave deliberations about arrests and prosecutions to law enforcement officials at the county level, according to staff members. 

Within recent months, corrections officials have tightened standards for mask use and testing within state facilities. Masks are now considered part of the Department of Corrections uniform, which officials say has helped increase compliance. While staff testing through DOC has previously been voluntary or available through primary care providers, DOC is now requiring staff members to take a COVID-19 test if the Clinical Services Division decides one is warranted, according to a department spokeswoman. 

Asymptomatic inmates and staff were offered testing beginning in May. Prisoners cannot be forced to accept any kind of medical treatment and can therefore only be offered and encouraged to take a COVID-19 test when they are available.

Bullock also recently approved the dispatch of 67 National Guard officers to supplement staffing at Montana State Prison, as many corrections officers have had to stay home to quarantine. Well before the outbreak of COVID-19, the prison was notoriously understaffed. According to job positions listed on the state website, Montana State Prison is currently hiring for 150 correctional officer positions

As part of its suggested guidance for pandemic preparedness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list “staff absences” as an issue corrections administrators should plan for, in part so prisons and jails can have enough employees to group corrections officers with inmates and avoid cross-contamination between units.

“Make plans in advance for how to change staff duty assignments to prevent unnecessary movement between housing units,” the CDC website says. “If there are people with COVID-19 inside the facility, it is essential for staff members to maintain a consistent duty assignment in the same area of the facility across shifts to prevent transmission across different facility areas.”

Winner acknowledged that staffing limitations have had an impact on executing best practices for preventing the spread of the virus.

“We have had discussions of trying to limit the amount of movement for staff,” Winner said. “That’s part of the problem you run into, is when you have a high number of staff out, positions have to be covered. And so I think that they try to do that as best they can.”

This story was updated Nov. 10, 2020, to clarify an attribution for the deaths of Robert Gonzalez and Jeffory Alan Lafield.

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.