The Department of Corrections has announced positive COVID-19 cases in its facilities but its refusal to share testing statistics and other information has led to confusion and anxiety among prisoners and their loved ones.
“Why is it such a big deal to tell us how many tests you’re running” asked Khristian Banley, whose fiance Tanner Dvorak is at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield. Knowing this "would make people feel a lot better."
"I can spread truth instead of fear among inmates and family" if I have this information, said Banley, who runs a Facebook group for people with loved ones in prison and former inmates.
Tamara St. John, a Republican state representative from Sisseton, has also been speaking with people whose loved ones are in prison, and said some have become "despondent” after trying to learn more information from the DOC.
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"The number one question (they have) is how much testing is going on," she said. This shouldn't be "hard to share" and would be "reassuring" for people to know.
The lack of information from the DOC has caused concern among prisoners and their loved ones, Banley said based on her conversations with these groups of people. The Journal is also observing this interviews and on the Facebook group.
Prisoners are seeing their fellow inmates being quarantined but don’t know if that means they're positive for the virus, awaiting a test result or just being quarantined as a precaution. Prisoners and their loved ones have reached out to the DOC and media for information, and have sometimes shared tips about positive cases with the Journal that ended up being false.
When Dvorak first arrived in the Springfield prison about a month ago, he was placed into the “Barracks,” three large rooms with dozens of bunk-beds. He said if someone began having COVID-19 symptoms, the inmate, their bunk-mate and people who sleep on some of the nearby bunks were taken to be quarantined in a gym. Once the men were released, he said, they shared that they had been tested while quarantined.
Dvorak said he had already assumed the inmates were being quarantined while awaiting test results since he knows results don’t come back right away. But he said others started rumors that the quarantine meant the men were all positive.
Lack of info
The Journal has asked the DOC and Department of Health — which provides healthcare in the prisons — multiple times about the numbers of people being tested and quarantined, but has not received answers.
Most recently, the Journal asked the DOC and DOH on April 13 to confirm that multiple inmates in Springfield were being quarantined while awaiting COVID-19 test results, and if so, how many.
Katlyn Richter, a member of the state’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center, responded but did not answer the question. Instead she explained that there have been no positive cases at that prison and that “inmates are screened for new onset of fever, cough, or shortness of breath and if clinically indicated tested for COVID-19.”
The Journal also asked DOH Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon during a news conference if the DOC and DOH can begin providing a breakdown of how many inmates and staff are being tested and quarantined — plus the test results — at each prison.
Malsam-Rysdon responded by explaining the challenges of reporting how many people have been tested since tests are processed at multiple labs. But All DOC tests are being processed at just one lab — the state lab — since they’re considered high risk, according to an April 10 Argus Leader story.
The Journal then emailed the DOH and DOC the same question it asked Malsam-Rysdon, but officials did not directly answer. They also did not respond to an email asking why the agencies won’t share the information.
The DOC has shared positive cases among inmates in its prisons. One inmate from the women’s prison in Pierre has recovered after the DOC announced her positive test on March 23. The agency then announced April 15 that an inmate at the Jameson Annex at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls tested positive.
No Correction Health staff have tested positive for the virus as of April 14, Richter said in an email. Michael Winder, spokesman for the DOC, did not respond to an email asking whether any other kind of workers have tested positive.
Some local jails in South Dakota and other states are sharing more detailed information about COVID-19 policies, testing and quarantines.
No youth at the juvenile jail in Rapid City have tested for COVID-19, Helene Duhamel, spokeswoman for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, said on April 21. Two inmates were tested at the adult jail and the results were negative.
“We have not directed any employees to be tested, however we have sent a few employees home who were symptomatic per our screening protocols,” Duhamel said. She said a “very small handful” of employees have been tested at the recommendation of their doctors, and all tests came back negative.
The Ohio prison system has a website that lists the total number of inmates who have been tested and what the results were. It shares the number of staff and inmates who tested positive —and whether they recovered or died — for each prison. The chart also shares the number of inmates and units in quarantine.
Arizona breaks down how many prisoners have been tested and what the results were at each prison. But its prison system has refused to share the number of workers who have tested positive, according to an April 15 story by ABC15.
The South Dakota DOC began sharing COVID-19 policy updates to its website on March 12 and added an FAQ page on Monday. There is no direct phone number for the DOC spokesman and emails sometimes go unanswered for multiple days.
Other states have more detailed COVID-19 policies available to the public. For example, the Nebraska prison system shares the video and written COVID-19 memos it sends to inmates and workers. The Wisconsin prison system shares memos, has a lengthy FAQ section and a COVID-19 hotline for people with additional questions.
Banley said she understands that the DOC can’t release all information due to security concerns, but she would like the agency to share more details about what will happen in the case of an outbreak so inmates and their loved ones know what to expect.
St. John said she wants the agency to share specific information about how it's preventing vulnerable inmates from becoming sick. Right now the FAQ page says it has "identified this population within our facilities and intensified efforts to reduce potential exposure and transmission."
The representative said she plans to reach out to the DOC now that she's spoken with loved ones and researched policies in other states.
What "we're wanting is transparency so that individuals that have relatives or loved ones that are incarcerated, that they know that their person isn’t going to lose their life there when that could have been prevented."
— Contact Arielle Zionts at email@example.com.