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Alaska News

Bethel prisoners with COVID-19 fill gym as outbreaks spread in Anchorage corrections facilities

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: December 19, 2020
  • Published December 18, 2020

Coronavirus cases continue to spread in Alaska’s correctional system, where more than half the state’s facilities are over capacity.

State officials have tallied 72 active cases at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River, where female prisoners are housed, as of Friday.

That’s up from three on Tuesday, according to Sarah Gallagher, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Corrections.

Those inmates had symptoms, Gallagher said. Facility-wide testing turned up another 66 inmates who tested positive for the virus.

An outbreak is also growing at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. As of Friday, 190 inmates had active infections, according to state corrections data. Earlier this week, there were 112 active cases.

At the Yukon-Kuskokwim facility in Bethel, an outbreak prompted state officials to house COVID-positive inmates in bunk beds in the gym, which can hold 60 inmates, Gallagher said in an email. There were 55 inmates housed there as of Friday. A total of 67 inmates have tested positive.

Prison nurses conduct symptom checks daily and are working closely with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which has offered the Bamlanivimab antibody infusion to three high-risk inmates “who may not have otherwise had the opportunity,” she wrote.

The prison’s maximum capacity is 200. There were 208 inmates housed there as of Friday, according to state data.

Of 13 corrections facilities around the state, six others were over capacity Friday: Anchorage Correctional Complex; Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome; Fairbanks Correctional Center; Ketchikan Correctional Center; Mat-Su Pretrial Facility in Palmer; and Wildwood Pretrial Facility in Kenai.

During District Court hearings on Thursday, an Anchorage Correctional Complex sergeant told Judge Jo-Ann Chung that the facility had no available beds, and that the housing situation was “acute.”

Meanwhile a major outbreak at the state’s largest prison — Goose Creek Correctional Center on Point MacKenzie near Wasilla — appears to be declining.

The state reported 708 inmates with active infections at the start of the week, or more than half the prison population. That was down to 382 on Friday. That’s due to a number of inmates now considered to have recovered, Gallagher said.

Statewide, there are currently eight prisoners hospitalized with COVID-19. A total of 22 inmates have needed care at a hospital since the pandemic started in March. Three Alaskan prisoners have died with the virus.

Many prison outbreaks around the country involve large numbers of asymptomatic inmates who get picked up as positive in broad rounds of testing. But some prisoners get sick and die with the virus. Corrections officials around the country are struggling to contain the spread of the virus within prison walls.

Asked if the Alaska corrections department has a position on prioritizing inmates for the newly available COVID-19 vaccination, Gallagher said the agency will follow the plan laid out by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services for vaccine distribution.

The health agency has not announced a policy on inmate vaccine distribution.

Reporter Michelle Theriault Boots contributed to this story.

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