Wyoming prison leaders considering how to open for visitors

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Most people incarcerated in Wyoming haven’t seen their families in person in over a year.

Visitation days, as well as many of the other routines that govern life in Wyoming prisons, were ripped away by the coronavirus pandemic.

“And in prisons, routines are our best friends,” said Paul Martin, spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Corrections. “But we’ve got new routines now.”

Staff holds meetings online, and inmates attend court appearances by video. And as case numbers keep trending down, Martin said department leadership is looking at how to start opening back up, little by little.

The first COVID-19 cases among those incarcerated in Wyoming prisons were confirmed in late July at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. Now, the total number of people in prisons across the state who have tested positive for the virus is up to 879, according to data from the Marshall Project.

With just over 1,800 people incarcerated in Wyoming across five prisons, that means just under 50% of current inmates have received positive results at some point since testing began (not accounting for those entering and leaving the prison system during that time).

As of mid-April, the Wyoming Department of Corrections has confirmed that three inmates have died from COVID-19. Until the first death was confirmed in January, Wyoming was one of just three states without any virus-related deaths in its prisons.

According to the Marshall Project, Wyoming has the sixth-lowest number of inmate deaths related to COVID-19 in the country. It ranks 19th in number of cases per capita, and 34th in deaths per capita based on the incarcerated population.

Wyoming Department of Corrections policy dictates that when someone receives a positive test result, they’re moved into quarantine housing units for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended quarantine period. (Right now, that’s 10 days.) When the time is up, they’re released as long as they’re not showing any symptoms.

If the case numbers in any facility climb too high, Martin said staff can place everyone on lockdown. Prisons also have “restricted housing for isolation,” which Martin said houses people transferring into a new facility until they’re confirmed to not be carrying the virus.

“A prison is very much like a small contained city,” Martin said. “We have a store, we have a jail, we have schools, gyms, apartments, restaurants … and it can be a vibrant place. Everything slows down (in lockdown), and people stay home in their cells.”

Full facility lockdowns have been relatively rare, Martin said. But the department saw a few outbreaks at the Wyoming State Penitentiary — one in December, when 61 inmates and six employees tested positive in one week and one in February with 44 cases between both inmates and staff.

The latest came in March when 35 people incarcerated at the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton tested positive for COVID-19. Case numbers have slowed down in recent weeks.

When case numbers are low, Martin said prisons will test 20% of inmates and staff in any given week. If the previous week of testing found more cases than normal at a certain facility, everyone living or working there will be tested in the next round.

According to Martin, the department has been performing weekly COVID-19 testing across all facilities since late summer, once tests were more widely available.

Martin said the department has also been doing wastewater testing at the Wyoming Honor Farm, where the first case in Wyoming prisons was found. At the start of the pandemic, higher case numbers in the community near the facility spurred the department to monitor the water while nasal swab tests were still scarce.

“We’ve not eased up on our mask requirements,” Martin said, “or on our social distancing requirements. Everyone who enters a prison is required to wear a mask, everyone in the prisons is required to wear a mask.”

Many of the masks worn inside the prisons were also made inside the prisons, Martin said. Three facilities — the State Penitentiary, the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution and the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk — have sewing shops where inmates work, typically on things like uniforms and bed linens.

Once coronavirus hit, those shops pivoted to allow inmates to make “tens of thousands” of double-layered fabric face masks, Martin said. Thousands were distributed around the state to the governor’s office, school districts and more.

According to an email obtained by the Star-Tribune from then-Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert, the department started mandating masks in its facilities on April 9, 2020. At that time, the email says, all inmates were afforded two fabric masks and promised an additional one once enough were available.

During an outbreak, people in the prisons trade their fabric masks with medical masks. In November, Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution Deputy Warden Marlena McManis informed her staff in a memo that all staff and inmates there would be switching to medical masks “due to the recent increase in positive cases throughout the facility.” The memo said both employees and inmates would be issued clean masks twice a week.

Looking ahead, the department said it has been providing vaccines on a rolling basis as inmates became eligible. Every person incarcerated in Wyoming prisons have been offered the vaccine, Martin said, but it won’t ever be mandatory to take.

Although all medical care given in the prisons is tracked by staff, Department of Corrections compliance manager C.J. Young said the department is not keeping track of vaccination rates among inmates.

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The Associated Press

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