More People Test Positive For COVID-19 In Indiana Prisons

Apr 8, 2020

Credit WFIU/WTIU News

  Updated 04/08/2020 at 5:24 pm.

On Wednesday, Indiana's Joint Information Center confirmed to Side Effects that 10 prisoners in state Department of Correction facilities have now tested positive for COVID-19, along with 20 agency employees. 

In its email, the state declined to reveal where the prisoners and employees who tested positive were located. "The locations of staff and inmates are not being released in the interest of safety," the email stated.

On Monday, a court filing from the agency’s chief medical officer revealed that six prisoners had tested positive in three different correctional facilities: the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, the Plainfield Correctional Facility and the Edinburgh Correctional Facility. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb, state lawmakers and activists such as the ACLU of Indiana have all expressed concerns about the spread of coronavirus among people in jails and prisons. Tight quarters, advanced age and underlying health conditions could make many prisoners vulnerable to the disease.

The ACLU of Indiana has petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court to issue an emergency order for lower courts to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons, so that they can socially isolate.

“We’re not saying, ‘Open up the doors and let everyone out,’” says Ken Falk, legal director at ACLU of Indiana. 

The ACLU has asked that the corrections agency, courts and county sheriffs identify people who might be released: those with existing health problems, detainees awaiting trial for non-violent offenses or being held solely because they can’t afford bail; or prisoners within six months of their expected release date. Courts could then determine whether these prisoners should be eligible for temporary or permanent release. 

“Due to the nature of confinement, social distancing is virtually impossible -- if not impossible -- in those settings,” says Falk. The ACLU points out in its petition that jails and prisons are constitutionally required to ensure the health of their detainees. 

“The point here, of course, is not just to protect the safety of the prisoners...There are thousands of people working at the DOC now who are being exposed,” says Falk. State officials confirmed last week that some prison employees had tested positive for COVID-19, as well. 

According to the filing from the DOC medical officer, Dr. Kristen Dauss, the agency is working with the health department to test more prisoners. Those known or suspected to have COVID-19 are being isolated.

“Offenders who may have been exposed to the offenders who tested positive, but are not yet symptomatic, have also been quarantined to stop the spread of disease,” the filing states. 

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill has filed a memorandum in opposition to the ACLU’s petition. 

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.