COVID-19 Strikes Alaskan Prison
“In general, overall movement around the facility has been very restricted,” she told the Frontiersman. “I believe at Goose Creek [staff] are mandated to wear surgical masks, not just cloth face coverings but surgical masks as an additional PPE coverage, but you know they are members of the community and I think we’ve seen the Wasilla area is one of the highest covid infection rates in the state right now so we are doing everything we can to prevent the introduction but these people are members of that community and do serve as essential employees and have to report to work and we do everything we can to screen things out.”
On October 21, a total of 55 inmates tested positive at the Fairbanks Correctional Center (FCC), which houses both males and females serving sentences and awaiting trials. The majority of those receiving positive test results remained asymptomatic.
As of November 25, 2020, DOC had counted a total of 165 positive results from 10,724 tests conducted among its general population of inmates since the beginning of the pandemic. DOC took in 34,743 offenders in 2019, though after releases its daily population averaged 4,997.
FCC, which also serves as a reception center for those entering the prison system from the northern part of the state, is currently 8% over capacity, making it difficult to isolate infected prisoners. Gallagher said the agency’s response was to house all of the sick together.
“To the extent possible, inmates with positive results are being housed together, inmates with negative results are being housed together, and inmates who refuse testing are being housed together,” she said. “This is further broken down by symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.”
On November 6, 2020, Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) announced new restrictions to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease, just as restrictions passed by the state legislature in March 2020 were set to expire, warning that without them “our hospital workers will get sick. Not ‘may,’ they will — some are now. That our military will get sick. They are now. That our police will get sick.”
“I’m not saying this to scare you,” the governor insisted. “I just want us all to work together a little bit, readjust how we do things, so that we can get through the next two months.”
Since the pandemic reached the U.S. in early 2020, Alaskan civil rights advocates have consistently questioned what DOC would do if ever there were a COVID-19 outbreak in its prisons.
DOC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom said her agency had been “proactive in preventing the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in our facilities even before the first positive case was identified in Alaska.”
“While we never wanted this day to come, the outbreak at FCC is an eventuality the Department has prepared for,” she added. “Our focus at this point is on protecting those at the facility who are most vulnerable and identifying any additional cases in the institution.”
Officials said they maintain a practice of screening all employees before their shifts begin. Incoming prisoners and detainees are quarantined for 14 days before being allowed into the general population.
In addition to the cases at Goosewood and FCC, another 21 cases have been reported at Northstar Center, a Fairbanks halfway house privately operated for DOC by Florida-based GEO Group. The state Department of Health and Social Services has also reported 53 cases among 93 residents at its Fairbanks Pioneer Home, where the average age is 87.
Al Gross, a physician who was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the state’s U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Dan Sullivan – who is also a doctor – lamented the rising toll of the pandemic as “the cost of too many yes-men” in political power.
“It’s heartbreaking to see doctors, nurses, and medical staff combat this with such courage as the federal government continues to fail them,” said Gross, who has volunteered with his wife to treat COVID-19 patients.