People who are incarcerated have been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks during this pandemic. New Hampshire's state prison system has been managing several outbreaks over the last few months.
Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello, who's been following how the New Hampshire Department of Corrections is handling the spread of COVID-19 within its facilities.
Rick Ganley: First, can you give us an idea of what case numbers and outbreaks within New Hampshire's prisons look like right now?
Peter Biello: There are outbreaks currently open at the State Prison for Men in Concord and the Women's Correctional Facility in Concord. Outbreaks will not be closed until there are no positive tests in the facility for 14 consecutive days. And right now, at the State Prison for Men, there are three confirmed positive cases of COVID-19. At the state prison for women, there's one. And there are none reported right now at the northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin and none reported at the state's transitional housing units, the secure psychiatric unit, transitional work Units, or residential treatment unit.
We're focusing our attention here on the Department of Corrections, which does not oversee places like the Valley Street Jail in Manchester or other jails throughout the state; counties run those facilities. And it's worth noting that the number of COVID-19 cases reported at DOC facilities are likely lower than the actual number of cases.
Rick Ganley: Why? Can you explain more about how the department conducts testing and what that testing looks like for inmates?
Peter Biello: There's a complicated system for how they go about testing. But in general, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections doesn't test every inmate on a routine basis as a matter of policy. So if you're an inmate living in the State Prison for Men, the women's prison in Concord or the northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin, you get tested if you show symptoms or if you come in close contact with someone who has had COVID.
Now, if you are transferred between prisons or if you're entering prison for the first time, or if you have a medical appointment outside the prison, you get tested. And the transitional housing units and other DOC facilities may get more frequent testing. But for most inmates, testing isn't done unless they've got symptoms or if they've been near someone who has tested positive.
Now, numerous inmates have told me that they believe the actual numbers of COVID-19 cases in the prisons are higher because the prison doesn't test everyone. So cases go undetected. I should note that correctional facilities in Vermont do test everybody on a rotating basis. So it is possible to do that, though the CDC doesn't say you have to test everyone on a regular basis.
Rick Ganley: Okay, Peter, but how do department guidelines compare to what you're actually hearing from inmates? Are the guidelines being followed?
Peter Biello: It depends. I mean, it's hard to say across the board what is and what is not actually happening. But I've got some insight from inmates who are telling me anecdotes, things that are happening, though the frequency with which they're happening is unclear to me. One inmate told me that he saw someone with symptoms wait days to get a test and in the interval was moving among his group of inmates and he eventually tested positive. Another inmate consistent with the policy wanted a test, but he wasn't showing symptoms, so he was told he wouldn't get one unless he did present symptoms. Remember, COVID-19 doesn't always show symptoms, which is why testing, even when you don't have symptoms, is sometimes helpful to determine if you have it and if you're contagious.
I've also been in contact with some inmates at the prison in Berlin and some of their family members who say that there were inmates transported to the prison in Berlin and they brought COVID-19 into the prison. There is some disagreement between these people and the DOC about whether these inmates were tested or adequately quarantined before the transfer. I asked the DOC to comment, and they said, "Any residents who have been transferred between facilities were done so out of necessity, and all were done according to our guidelines at the time. All residents were quarantined for 14 days prior to transfer at a minimum." So that's an allegation I'm still looking into.
Rick Ganley: Okay, and where do inmates go if they do test positive for COVID? What have you heard from inmates about what quarantine conditions are like?
Peter Biello: The DOC says the positive person will be removed from the unit and moved to a designated medical isolation area, i.e. the infirmary. This is called medical isolation, as defined by CDC, which is different from quarantine. Here's what I've heard from inmates. Sometimes the DOC removes an inmate who test positive and places them in rooms reserved for solitary confinement. In the men's prison in Concord, the gym was used as a large area for COVID-19 patients to spread out. And also at the men's prison, there were rooms called dorms. These rooms at the men's prison were roughly 20 bunk beds, so up to 40 people. When COVID numbers were highest back in December and then January, a few sources told me that the room was full of people clustered together. One of those inmates was a man named Matthew Hills, who actually finished his sentence while he was in the dorms, and then afterwards went to live with his father in Haverhill, Massachusetts. And here's what he told me about the conditions in the dorms.
Matthew Hills: I think we maybe got fresh laundry in the 13 days that I was sitting in that dormitory three, four times. The rest of the time, we had to wash it by hand. The bathroom was atrocious. There were guys who hadn't showered the entire time. You could smell the body odor like when you walked by some of these guys.
Peter Biello: So rough conditions there, but because the numbers have decreased since January, it's unclear to me whether the dorms are still in that condition or is still being used at all for quarantining COVID-19 patients.
Rick Ganley: Peter, what progress has the Department of Corrections made with vaccinating corrections officers who are part of that 1B vaccination group that we're supposed to be working on now? Have they had any issues with compliance among staff?
Peter Biello: Staff is getting the vaccine. To date, the DOC says 296 staff have received their first dose. Second clinics are scheduled for second doses. And residents are getting [vaccinated] as well. Today, 234 residents have received first doses and 26 have received both doses. That's part of the Phase 1B vaccine where, you know, if they're over 65, an inmate is eligible to receive the vaccine.
Rick Ganley: What about plans for the general population when we move into the next phase?
Peter Biello: I don't know if they're singled out in particular, but they say that they're going to get everybody in 1B phase finished within four weeks.
Rick Ganley: Okay, any lingering questions that you have, Peter, that are not being answered by the department?
Peter Biello: Well, our interview request with DOC Commissioner Helen Hanks is open. We're hoping to have a conversation with her. We'd love to know, for example, why the DOC has not adopted policies like the one Vermont has where they're testing everybody. So there are a lot of questions out there. Hopefully we'll have a chance to talk to Commissioner Hanks soon.