A prison in Indiana has reported that 92% of the people incarcerated there who have been tested for COVID-19 have had positive results. Westville Correctional Facility is a medium-security prison with a population of 3200. As of Wednesday, only 137 inmates had been tested, but 126 of those had tested positive, according to the Chicago Tribune.
As of Thursday afternoon, 130 of the 246 COVID-19 cases in state correctional facilities were at Westville, according to the Indiana Department of Corrections website. Last week, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box discussed the growing outbreak at the facility, simply saying that people in the prison who have tested positive are being isolated from the rest of the community. Meanwhile, advocates continue to push for incarcerated people to be released due to the pandemic, which Gov. Eric Holcomb has previously said he does not support.
On Tuesday, the Indiana chapter of the National Lawyers Guild issued an open letter asking Gov. Holcomb to "immediately exercise his executive authority under the Indiana Constitution" to release all state prisoners who are at risk of dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. According to IndyStar, the governor’s office responded to the letter by calling it “inflammatory.”
According to David R. Bursten, Chief Communications Officer at the Indiana Department of Correction, the positive test results were somewhat expected. "The Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) is following CDC guidelines to test offenders who display symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. For this reason it is expected the vast majority of persons tested will come back with a positive test result," Bursten said in a statement to Refinery29. He also stated that, at the Westville Correctional Facility, only 26 symptomatic inmates are currently being isolated, but 1,498 asymptomatic inmates are also being quarantined due to suspected exposure. However, it is unclear what measures are being taken within the facility to quarantine thousands of inmates.
As has been predicted by experts and advocates since the virus came to the United States, prisons have become hotbeds for COVID-19. The close quarters, lack of adequate protection, and unsanitary conditions make the facilities breeding grounds for the spread of disease. As such, advocates have been asking for governors in infected states to release people who are incarcerated in order to lessen their risk of contracting the virus.
However, in places where that is being done, there are inadequate quarantine protocols, which raises concern of people leaving correctional facilities and becoming sources of community spread. In San Bernardino County, at least three people have tested positive for COVID-19 soon after they were released from the California Institution for Men (CIM).
"If we know that someone is coming from one of those facilities, maybe we reach out to them, we offer them services, maybe we offer them testing, or monitor them, check to see if they have any signs or symptoms," Lake County California Sheriff Brian Martin told KQED. "It's not to punish them, it's nobody's fault that they catch coronavirus. But we wanna make sure that they're safe and our community's safe as well."
Refinery29 has reached out to the Westville Correctional Facility and the Indiana Department of Corrections for comment.