IN FOCUS: COVID-19 & Utah’s Inmate Population

In Focus

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The Utah Department of Health announced this week that inmates could get the vaccine as early as March 2021, as part of Phase Two of their rollout.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Utah Department of Corrections reported 2,627 state inmates tested positive for the virus, a number that includes community correctional centers. Their current total population numbers are 5,467. Using these numbers, their positivity test rate calculates to 48.1. There are currently 1,065 active cases of COVID-19.

RELATED: Utah Department of Corrections reports 2 more inmate deaths due to COVID-19

Advocates say correctional facilities are hot spots for the virus with inmate family and friends fighting for better and protocols.

“This population, a lot of them live in a dorm setting. In their setting, there are many, multiple inmates who are housed together. Those bunks are two to three feet apart,” says Wendy Parmley, Director of Medical and Mental Health, Utah Prisoner Advocate Network. “Aside from their close living quarters, they also come with a lot of co-morbidities and an awful lot of health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, respiratory conditions, or COPD that put them more at risk.”

Cathy Linford’s son, Calvin Hansen is currently an inmate at the Utah State Prison in Draper. She tells ABC4 News in an IN FOCUS interview Monday that Hansen has asthma and they’ve been deeply concerned about COVID-19 since the first case hit the state in March.

“Where do I begin? It’s been horrible. It’s been a nightmare for me and him both,” says Linford. “We were both petrified. ‘Oh. He’s going to get it. He’s going to die. He has asthma.’ So I tried to get him an early release. I’ve been working on it since March.”

RELATED: ACLU, inmates at Weber Co. Jail continue to ask for early releases after COVID-19 outbreak

Linford explained her son has 10 months left on his sentence and is considered low-risk at Level 4. Hansen ended up testing positive for COVID-19 on November 12th. Linford says he is still having extreme difficulty breathing.

“Those were the hardest two weeks of my life. I think I cried every single day. I didn’t know if he was going to live. I really didn’t. He’d call me. He’d still call me every day. Thank goodness he could still call me every single day,” she says. “I just hope his lungs survive. I love my son. I love him so much. A mother’s love is unconditional.”

Parmley says the consensus among inmates and family members she’s communicated with is that they feel forgotten about. Although she expressed that prison officials did their best to mitigate the contraction and spread of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, she believes there were some shortfalls, such as a lack of routine testing.

“I think that they might have been caught off-guard as the virus spread, as rapidly as it has. It’s really hard to make housing adjustments and quarantine adjustments to prevent the spread,” shares Parmley. “But inmates were only tested when they were symptomatic and then others in their dorms were tested. Once there are symptoms, it is too late. You spread this disease when you’re pre-symptomatic.”

She adds, “One of the most difficult things is that visitation has been on hold since March and for some reason, the rest of us has been able to move forward with online technology and the prison still doesn’t have any sort of online visitation.”

All three IN FOCUS guests express that news of the COVID-19 vaccine being administered to inmates during Phase 2 of the rollout brings them relief.

RELATED: Should incarcerated Americans get vaccinated first?

“At least for family, it provides an awful lot of comfort that inmates are being prioritized, as they should. They’re in these congregate settings that are much higher risk than the general population to acquire COVID and I think it helps family members feel like their loved ones are important too, that they’re not forgotten,” says Parmley.

The news doesn’t come without opposition though, with some community members believing that precious medical resources should not be allocated to those serving time. Parmley and Linford explained their responses to that argument.

“I think that it serves us all well to vaccinate those who are most at-risk. If you’re most at-risk to acquire COVID, you’re also most at-risk to then give others COVID, whether those be corrections officers or physicians who are coming in from outside the prison. You know, they go home to their families too,” shares Parmley. “If you don’t have a choice to isolate yourself and protect yourself because you’re living with many, sometimes dozens of other individuals, it’s the right thing to do to provide the immunization and to decrease your risk of really a deadly illness. We’ve had inmates die.”

RELATED: Salt Lake County deputy shares serious message about COVID-19 after surviving near-death experience

“People can have a dismissive, harsh attitude all they want. But these are still people and everybody deserves kindness and everybody deserves help. COVID is a deadly disease. Thousands of men and women have been infected because they had no other choice. They couldn’t get away from it and if that doesn’t create some empathy in people, I’m a little scared about society right now,” says Linford.

The Utah Department of Corrections declined ABC4’s invitation to join Monday’s IN FOCUS discussion, but made a referral over to their public webpage on how they are responding to COVID-19. A spokesperson said their agency is working closely with the Utah Department of Health on protocols for the vaccine and plan to be in compliance with their recommendations. More information is expected to be released as time gets closer to accessibility to the vaccine for incarcerated individuals.

RELATED: How are Utah prisons keeping inmates safe from COVID-19?

Davis County Jail is the most recent correctional facility to see a COVID-19 outbreak within their jail among inmates and staff. Sheriff Kelly Sparks joined the IN FOCUS discussion to share the protocols and preventative measures they implemented to keep the virus out of their facility during the first nine months of Utah’s COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Over 30 inmates, one employee test positive for COVID-19 at Davis County Correctional

“I know every jail management team across the state is concerned about the spread of COVID in their facilities. We’ve all been working hard to mitigate that,” he says. “At Davis County Jail, we were able to provide masks very early on to all of our inmates and staff. We also provided strong disinfectants in each of the housing areas, so the inmates could have access to the products and use them on all common areas. Anyone new coming into the jail goes through a two-week quarantine and gets tested before the quarantine is over.”

Additionally, jail officials also worked with prosecutors, public defenders’ office, administrative office of the courts, and judges to evaluate inmates to see who could qualify for compassionate early release. They considered inmates who had served the majority of their sentence, those who were at-risk, and those who were serving for non-violent crimes.

Sheriff Sparks explains that the inmate and staff population are not static, with individuals coming in and out of correctional facilities on a frequent basis. At Davis County Jail, they average approximately 15 to 20 new inmates a day, with a similar rate of inmates being released. He said his staff looks forward to the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine in a few months for the inmate population to provide an extra layer of protection for everyone inside their facility.

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Linford, Parmley, and Sheriff Sparks, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.

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