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Nearly Half Of All Inmates In Alaska Have Tested Positive For COVID-19

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Alaska has a lower COVID-19 case rate than most states. But one area that's a serious concern are prisons, where nearly half of all inmates have tested positive. Alaska Public Media's Lex Treinen reports.

LEX TREINEN, BYLINE: The Goose Creek prison outside Anchorage got hit with COVID-19 in October. Diane Boyd's husband is serving a 99-year sentence there for a triple homicide. She remembers talking to him as infections grew from dozens to hundreds.

DIANE BOYD: He said, I know I committed a serious crime. But I don't want to die from this.

TREINEN: Eventually, more than a thousand of the prison's 1,400 inmates were infected.

BOYD: And he said, who knows, if you catch it, what's going to happen to you?

TREINEN: Three people died at the prison. And an unknown number could suffer lingering effects of long-haul COVID-19.

MICHAEL GARVEY: They have not done nearly enough to mitigate the harm and spread of COVID-19 inside Alaska's prisons.

TREINEN: Michael Garvey is with the ACLU of Alaska. He says the state has done little to address the prison system's long running problems with overcrowding. It didn't release older or sick inmates early in the pandemic. The crowding has only been made worse by the hold on in-person jury trials due to the pandemic. Garvey says that means Alaska's jails are filling with inmates who haven't been convicted of a crime.

GARVEY: When the prison is overcrowded, where people have reported being in a gymnasium with more than 10 other people, it's really hard to maintain health

TREINEN: The Department of Corrections doesn't have control over the court systems operations, says Jeremy Hough, who oversees correctional facilities.

JEREMY HOUGH: I can't think of anything that we should be doing more than we already are. I can tell you that the - there are several people that argue that we're doing too much.

TREINEN: Alaska's COVID-19 rates in prisons are 75% higher than the national average, according to the Marshall Project, a criminal justice reporting group. Hough says that can be explained in part by the Corrections Department's aggressive testing program. And he says the department has strict standards for sanitation and masking.

HOUGH: We take every precaution. We meet or exceed the CDC's recommendation on detention.

ANGELA HALL: There's a real disconnect between the DOC administration and what is actually happening in the facilities.

TREINEN: Angela Hall runs a weekly support group for inmates' family members.

HALL: We know from family members in Goose Creek that they were not wearing masks, that staff were refusing to wear masks.

TREINEN: Corrections officials deny these claims. And families say that mask-wearing among staff has improved in recent months. Given the high number of positive tests, some argue Alaska should put inmates toward the front of the line for vaccinations. But a government committee ultimately put all Alaskans over 65 before inmates under that age. Alaska's chief medical officer, Dr Anne Zink, says the vaccine committee considered the possibility that prisoners who have tested positive may now have some measure of immunity.

ANNE ZINK: I wish that wasn't the case. I wish that we were able to protect people before they had been exposed to the disease in the numbers. But that also played a role in that conversation.

TREINEN: And Zink points out that prisoners over 65 are being offered the vaccine already. Diane Boyd's husband, who's at the hardest hit prison, Goose Creek, has so far avoided getting sick. He's 56, so he isn't eligible for the vaccine yet.

BOYD: We sit every day worried sick to death whether or not they're going to survive this pandemic. That's excruciating.

TREINEN: Alaska health officials say the general prison population should begin to receive coronavirus vaccinations in mid-February. Once that happens, Boyd says, her husband's prison life will begin to return to normal.

For NPR News, I'm Lex Treinen in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.