DRAPER, Utah (AP) — The families of inmates in the Utah State Prison gathered outside the state Department of Corrections headquarters Tuesday to protest the handling of a coronavirus outbreak at the facility and call for improved safety measures.
“No matter the mistakes they have made on this Earth, our loved one matters to us,” Beth Thompson told the Deseret News, adding that her husband and inmate Keenan Thompson has an autoimmune disease that could make contracting COVID-19 dangerous.
The group joined advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and held signs that said “Every Inmate has Rights” and “Keep Prisoners Safe During COVID-19.”
As of Tuesday, the department reported 278 prison inmates had tested positive at the Draper facility, with about 264 of the cases considered “active.” No deaths were reported.
The number of cases surged last week after the virus spread between two separate blocks at the prison, officials said, adding that those who have tested positive have been either asymptomatic or have minor symptoms.
State health officials believe the outbreak can be traced to a health care provider who treated several inmates.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted said the worker was a contractor from outside the prison who was wearing full personal protective equipment. She declined to provide the worker’s employer or job title.
Department Executive Director Mike Haddon said prison staff received full protective gear, including gowns, masks and gloves to try to slow the spread. He said all inmates were also given masks.
Carrie Knowlton believes her husband Michael Knowlton, an inmate who tested positive, is still not getting adequate medical attention.
“He’s not getting help because no one cares,” she said. “The inmates are all just numbers.”
The ACLU of Utah sued over the prison’s coronavirus response back in April, but the Utah Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit, saying the group didn’t have proper legal standing to bring it to court.
ACLU Equal Justice Works fellow Sara Wolovick told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday they haven’t ruled out more litigation.
“This is the situation that we were afraid of and wanted to avoid,” she said. “That is why we filed our lawsuit in April before the prison had an outbreak. It’s very difficult to deal with once it’s actually in the facility.”
Prison officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.