Congregate care settings have been among the worst for COVID-19 outbreaks during the pandemic including prisons.
Nicole Fuschino visited 2 prisons in Somerset County today to see how they’re operating and preparing for a post covid world.
SCI Somerset and SCI Laurel Highlands are working to create a new normal.
The facilities are separating their inmates into different zones to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and that’s something the superintendents say they want to keep long after the pandemic is over.
It was over one year ago inmates on the inside of these prison walls heard the news a pandemic is on the rise.
“It changed our life completely. It affected us in here as well, just like everyone else on the street.”
Their superintendent said at the height of covid they had over 300 inmates with the virus and 120 staff out sick at one time.
“To run an operation of a facility with less than 700 staff and have 120 of them out at any point and time related to COVID, really impacted the operation and our mission.”
One change since covid the inmates don’t go to the dining halls to eat anymore they’re served in their cells.
“Everybody’s understood that we have one purpose and that is to get through this as safely as we can. I think that this allows us to be able to do that in the future.”
Down the street at SCI Laurel Highlands down medically vulnerable and geriatric inmates are housed along with those who need long-term care like dialysis.
“We have a medical mission here, so we provide skilled care and personal care to the medically vulnerable inmates.”
The DOC covid dashboard reports 15 inmates have died there from COVID-19.
And Hainsworth said covid brought on a new set of challenges.
“Ambulance trips, emergency trips, planned doctor’s appointments, different specialists, you name it, we have those appointments.”
In many cases, they’d have to be tested for covid prior to the appointment and then quarantine when they got back.
Both SCI Somerset and SCI Laurel Highlands created zones to keep groups of inmates apart.
“Those zones do everything together. They go to the barber shop together, they go to the library together, and they don’t go with the other zones.”
In-person visits resumed at SCI Laurel Highlands but SCI Somerset still isn’t allowing visitors inside.
Both facilities began virtual visitations by kiosk which they say will stick around.
“I haven’t seen home in 15 years. So, to be able to see the new home, it was really nice. That was really cool. That was really positive of the virtual visits.”
Over 70-percent inmates at both facilities got their vaccine.
State prisons received an incentive for inmates to get it.
“You have to be careful for yourself. So, you just go ahead and take the initiative and get vaccinated.”
The facilities also hosted fireside chats and town halls where information about the virus and vaccines could be communicated to inmates.
“Our corrections facilities are one of the highest-risk populations in society when it comes to virus control and COVID mitigation.”
One program that hasn’t came to a hault canine partners for life.
“It’s very unique, and it’s one of the unique ways you can make a difference in somebody’s life while you’re incarcerated.”
All changes made looking ahead to a brighter future on the other side.
“We look forward to the future and seeing what corrections is going to look like a year or two from now. I’m sure this will lead into further advancements and opportunities. At least we hope.”
Both superintendents say they want to keep a lot of these mitigation efforts like the zoning and also the virtual visitations with families and friends saying those are two positives that came out of the pandemic.