NH prisons spared worst of illness so far


Granite State News Collaborative

Published: 05-08-2020 9:31 PM

COVID-19, the lethal viral disease that can spread rapidly through facilities where residents gather to eat, sleep, work or socialize, has so far mostly spared New Hampshire’s prisons and jails.

Through Thursday, eight workers at two New Hampshire prisons had tested positive for COVID-19, as had three probation and parole officers, according to the state Corrections Department.

Only 14 inmates were tested, and none had the virus.

That seems a notable accomplishment for a system that at the beginning of April housed 2,433 inmates and employed 823 workers.

“We have no positive cases among residents, which is an amazing thing at this stage of the game,” said Laura Montenegro, public information officer for the Corrections Department.

Its online “COVID-19 Response Summary” says the department “has been committed to preventing COVID-19 from entering our facilities during this pandemic.”

Screening at the gates has turned away more than one employee so that “isolated cases remain isolated,” Montenegro said.

But some observers express skepticism about impressive results based on limited samples.

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“It’s likely that cases are being undercounted in facilities that aren’t performing mass testing,” says a paper by two analysts from Recidiviz, a San Francisco nonprofit company developing mathematical models measuring the impact of prison policies and conditions including for the state of Vermont.

Most of the Granite State’s COVID deaths — 87 out of 111, as of Wednesday — have occurred in nursing homes and senior communities.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said that day that the state, which has already tested 1,000 nursing home residents and 5,000 employees, would streamline on-site testing of residents and launch a “sentinel surveillance program” that would each week test 10% of the residents from 10 randomly selected nursing homes.

All nursing home employees would be tested every seven to 10 days, she said.

Prison testing is much less extensive. Montenegro said that Corrections officials are following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that call for testing prison residents who show symptoms of COVID-19.

Advocates want more to be done.

“Prisons and jails are tinderboxes for COVID-19,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Hampshire.

Outbreaks have hit prisons and jails in Ohio, Michigan and Texas.

Michael Donnelly, 35, lives in the Monadnock region and was released March 20 after four years of confinement at the state prison in Concord. Social distancing in the prison is “logistically impossible,” Donnelly said.

In some buildings, 24 prisoners live in a 10-room pod made for 20 people, while in one building eight prisoners share each room. Meals are taken in a mess hall filled with four-person tables.

Prisons typically house convicted individuals with multi-year sentences.

Jails in each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties house about 1,800 individuals awaiting trial or with shorter sentences.

Although there is no official tally, there have been no reports of jail inmates testing positive for COVID, said Keith Gray, the superintendent of the Belknap County Department of Corrections and president of the New Hampshire Association of Counties corrections affiliate.

A lone jail employee in Merrimack County and three in Hillsborough County tested positive, Gray said. A sheriff’s deputy delivering inmates to the Strafford County jail tested positive, according to news reports. Superintendents of those jails did not respond to requests for comment.

All in all, Gray said, “I feel like we’ve been fairly lucky.”

Yet prison and jail employees “are concerned,” said Jeffrey Padellaro, the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 633, which represents 250 state corrections officers and corporals and jail employees in Rockingham and Carroll counties. “It’s an unsafe environment on a good day.”

A December note by Teamster officials cited “critical staff shortages and unsustainable mandatory overtime” among corrections officers.

With 224 corrections officers, the state needed about 50 more to reduce overtime use, a factfinder from the New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board said.

Prison and jail officials “are doing the best that they can with the resources they have,” said Gary Apfel, a defense attorney in Lebanon. But their luck may run out, he added: “Sooner or later we’re going to have an outbreak in one of these institutions.”

Advocates want more done to reduce the jail population.

“It is imperative to release as many people as safely possible from prisons and jails to prevent a devastating outbreak in New Hampshire,” Chaffee said.

Gray said the statewide jail population has been reduced. In Belknap County, there had been 80 inmates in recent years, but there are now only 44, the lowest in 20 years, he said. The recent dropoff reflected reduced court activity and was “definitely driven by COVID-19,” he said.

Those who remain in prison should be tested, advocates say. But New Hampshire has carried out inmate testing at a rate — about 600 per 100,000 — far below the rate for the population at large (over 2,000 per 100,000).

That gap should be closed, said Chaffee: “As the state ramps up testing, we believe it is imperative that we see a similar increase in testing” in prisons and jails.

In a May 1 news conference, Gov. Chris Sununu said “testing is absolutely available to all (state prisons) at any time it is required.”

He added that “the need isn’t really there yet” for blanket testing but the state “could ramp up very, very quickly” with expanded testing by dispatching mobile units and using existing testing capacity.

There are signs of increased effort. Earlier this week the New Hampshire Health and Human Services Department sent the jail in Belknap County 50 sample collection kits and projected that they could be used to obtain test results from the state laboratory in Concord within two to three days, Gray said.

Still, New Hampshire’s approach has lagged behind neighboring Vermont where 221 of the 1,114 inmates — nearly 1 in 5 — had been tested and 45 COVID cases identified as of Friday.

In addition, 19 staff members tested positive. Two of the 246 Vermont inmates now confined in a Mississippi prison had been tested, and found not to have the virus, according to Corrections Department spokeswoman Rachel Feldman.

As of Monday, there were 18 Vermont inmates in a “surge facility” for COVID-19 positive patients at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury.

Seven were newly infected individuals and 11 were those still there after testing on April 8 identified 38 inmates and 17 staff members infected with COVID at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

In the second round of tests, only seven of 155 inmates had the virus and only one of 154 staff members.

Vermont’s progress was no accident, according to analysts from Recidiviz.

“Vermont performed mass testing immediately after the first case, kept testing up over the coming weeks, and isolated anyone new who tested positive,” the analysts wrote. “And it had no deaths, a complete reversal compared to both the model projections and the situation in” other facilities where COVID-19 appeared.

But inmate advocates and the Vermont ACLU have been pushing the state to be more proactive in testing in prisons and to release inmates who might be medically compromised or nearing completion of their minimum sentence.

And Robin Melone, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called upon corrections officials to do more in the Granite State: “I would encourage funding for testing of every inmate in every facility and of every new admission.”

The onset of COVID-19 altered daily life and program offerings in New Hampshire prisons and jails.

Donnelly recalled that as the virus approached prison managers began “spraying bleach on everything four times a day.”

The state Corrections Department suspended visits and volunteer services, limited transfers and stepped up screening of entering inmates and staff.

At the prison in Concord, the education floor, the library, Alcoholics Anonymous and religious and mental health services closed down, Donnelly said.

That worsened morale that had already been diminished by the December shutdown for security reasons of a popular craft and hobby program, he said.

But there were also unexpected windfalls.

In recent days a pallet with 48,000 masks was delivered to the Belknap jail in Laconia, according to Gray.

Another pallet with 60,000 masks arrived at the Coos County jail in West Stewartstown, according to Superintendent Ben Champagne.

Gray, who has been superintendent since 2015, said COVID-19 posed unprecedented challenges: “We were prepared to have an illness in the jail, but we weren’t really prepared for the whole country to have an illness.”

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens_2000@yahoo.com or 802-281-6641.