For weeks, as the pandemic has ravaged prisons around the nation, families of Alaska inmates have waited with dread for news of a coronavirus case within the inmate population here.
It finally happened on Sunday, just as the state was preparing to ease some lockdown restrictions: Officials with the Alaska Department of Corrections announced that an inmate at Goose Creek Correctional Center, a huge, medium-security prison in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, tested positive for the new coronavirus.
For Michael Boshears of Palmer, the prospect of an outbreak at the prison where her son is incarcerated was “horrifying.”
“I’ve read about prisons in NYC and other places that are just COVID-19 factories,” said Boshears, a retired paralegal. “One person gets it and another person gets it. They can’t control it.”
Her 41-year-old son Floyd “Roger” Boshears III, doing time on a technical parole violation, has been in solitary confinement for months. Even then, he showers and moves through spaces shared by hundreds of men.
“You just cannot protect yourself there,” said Boshears.
The case at Goose Creek was not the first tied to an Alaska prison. In mid-April, a cluster of six staff members at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau tested positive for the virus. But the Goose Creek case was the first evidence that the virus is spreading within the inmate population.
The Department of Corrections responded by immediately and dramatically ramping up testing. On Sunday, the day after the inmate tested positive, public health nurses tested 126 inmates and 80 staff members at Goose Creek, according to Sarah Gallagher, a DOC spokeswoman.
In total, DOC has now tested 208 inmates across all institutions, with one positive, 187 negative and 20 pending, according to department data updated Tuesday afternoon. No additional prisoners had tested positive as of then, said Gallagher.
COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, has torn through prisons around the United States.
In Ohio, 70% of inmates at one prison have been infected. Thirty federal inmates in Bureau of Prisons facilities have died, as of Tuesday. An estimated 140 prisoners, likely an undercount due to inconsistent reporting, have died in state and local facilities nationwide, according to The Crime Report, a publication of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
There’s no sign infections are tapering off in prisons, the publication said: “The curve used to measure when the virus is under control is still soaring in prisons even as some parts of the U.S. are starting to flatten the curve through social distancing,” according to The Crime Report.
If the lessons of explosive spread within the Bureau of Prisons are any guide, Alaska’s correctional facilities will soon post much larger numbers of infections as testing becomes more widespread, said Jamie McGrady, the Alaska federal public defender, in an open letter.
“If history is any guide, we can expect that our state’s jails will soon become a hotspot of infection -- if they aren’t already," McGrady wrote.
The ACLU of Alaska has urged the state to “downsize the footprint” of prisons immediately, especially aging and vulnerable inmates. About 300 inmates in Alaska are over the age of 60, according to a 2019 DOC report.
The Alaska Department of Corrections insists that it has responded to the pandemic aggressively. Testing is available on-site at all facilities, inmates have been given at least one mask and corrections officers two, said DOC spokeswoman Gallagher. Every person entering a facility is required to undergo a health question screening, and workers must submit to temperature tests before they start their shifts.
Brenda Watkinson’s husband, Rick Watkinson, is serving a life sentence for the 1995 murder of his father and stepmother in Anchorage, when he was 16. Watkinson is living in Tennessee with her family because of health problems, but talks to her husband at Goose Creek daily. They’ve been in a relationship for more than 20 years, through prison placements in Colorado and Arizona, medical emergencies and more.
Having a loved one behind bars is already fraught with fear and mystery, she said. A pandemic adds another layer of helplessness. She wonders if she’d even know if he was sickened or hospitalized. She told him to find out if she’s on his emergency contact card.
“There’s nothing I can do to help him,” she said. “I have to bank on the fact that if something happens to him, I am legally his emergency contact.”
Officials have not released any further information about the Goose Creek case, including which housing unit the prisoner was being held in, but families say the prison’s “Hotel Mod” is on lockdown.
For families of incarcerated people, the news of an Alaska inmate with COVID-19 was both feared and expected. Now, some families are scrambling to see if they can get their loved ones out of the prison on electronic monitoring or furlough — and coming up against an unyielding correctional bureaucracy.
Boshears emailed prison officials on Monday, appealing for the chance for her son to be on furlough or electronic monitoring. He was attacked during a previous stint in prison and suffers lingering injuries. He is “now in imminent danger of becoming infected with coronavirus," she wrote.
“There is more than ample reason to release Roger,” she wrote. “The number one reason being that he is infinitely safer outside of prison, and he is a minimal public safety risk, if any.”
She hasn’t heard back.
Angela Hall is the founder of Supporting Our Loved Ones Group, which advocates for families of incarcerated people. Her husband, Brian Hall, is doing a long sentence for murder committed when he was 17. He spent five years at Goose Creek but was recently moved to Wildwood Correctional Center on the Kenai Peninsula.
Hall said she understands the idea of compassionate release is unpopular and state officials already said early release for prisoners is “not on the table.” But she hopes that if the virus spreads farther within facilities, DOC will take a second look at getting more people home.
“We are hoping if the Department of Corrections is unable to contain the spread of this deadly virus, that they will look at options for releasing those that no longer pose a threat to the community to their loved ones who are ready to receive them,” Hall said.
One option would be a temporary furlough until the pandemic is over, she said.
There are some signs the state has been quietly shifting prisoners out. A few months ago, Alaska’s prison system was nearly at full capacity, with some individual jails and prisons overcrowded.
But those numbers have fallen, as inmates have been quietly shifted to electronic monitoring and halfway houses, and as courts have made decisions to keep more people out of jails during the pandemic.
“I think they’re doing it very quietly, so as not to alarm the public,” said Hall.
DOC says the extra space will allow prisoners with the virus or suspected of being in contact with a positive case to be isolated. Right now, Goose Creek is about 86% full, with 1,211 inmates out of a capacity of 1,408.
With in-person visits shut down for more than a month, family members have to rely on phone calls (paid, though inmates get two free per week now) to hear about what’s happening inside. Like people who are not incarcerated, Alaska inmates are feeling tense right now, out of their normal routines, and bracing for whatever lies ahead, Watkinson said.
“They’re wondering what the hell is going to happen next,” she said.
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