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‘It’s terrifying’: Corrections officers say jails aren’t doing enough to protect them as coronavirus spreads

As public health advocates warn of the threats the coronavirus poses behind bars, corrections officers at county jails in Pennsylvania say they continue to be put at risk.

Exterior of the Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center.
Exterior of the Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

A 30-year veteran of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons said she has developed a system after her shifts in one of the city’s largest jails to protect her family from the coronavirus — even as she says her employer isn’t doing enough.

She douses her car in Lysol. She sprays down her uniform, disrobes, and leaves it in a plastic bag in her basement. She avoids interacting with her daughters and grandchildren for fear of exposing them.

“Working in a jail is a stressful environment on a good day,” said the corrections officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions at her job. “The fact of not knowing if I’m coming into contact with inmates or guards that might be infected and bringing that into my house, it’s terrifying.”

As the number of confirmed cases in the region’s detention centers continues to rise, corrections officers are increasingly expressing concern that their employers aren’t doing enough to protect them.

At Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility, where 14 inmates and 24 staff members had tested positive as of Tuesday, guards say they’ve been offered extra pay, but only if they work a full 30 days — a measure that they say encourages sick employees to come to work, and fails to compensate those who fell ill because of their jobs.

Corrections officers at federal prisons in Philadelphia and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration this week, saying the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ lagging response is “endangering employees, [inmates], and whole communities.”

And in Philadelphia, union officials say they can’t get a clear picture of how many guards and inmates have tested positive at the four facilities in the largest county-jail system in the state.

“The lack of communication has the officers scared, and it’s creating a hostile environment,” said Gregory Trueheart, president of AFSCME Local 159, which represents the city’s corrections officers.

Guards there are being sent into quarantined cell blocks with little more than gloves and inmate-made cloth masks, Trueheart said. Staff move between quarantined and nonquarantined units, risking cross-contamination. And up until last week, programs like visits from social workers and therapy sessions, in which inmates are taken from their cells to play board games or color in small groups, were continuing as usual, he said.

“Is it that important for an inmate to come out and get a [expletive] coloring book?” he said. “The less people coming inside off the streets, the better we’ll all be.”

But Trueheart remains most concerned with jail administrators’ refusal to share data on the number of positive tests for each facility with their front-line employees — a situation he says prevents guards from assessing the personal risk they face each day they come to work.

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“Correctional staff are continuously denied such pertinent information, which places [them] in a position of possible COVID-19 contamination [and] directly affects … their families,” the union wrote in a letter to city officials last week.

As of Wednesday, at least 62 inmates, or three out of every 200 prisoners, had tested positive for the coronavirus — an infection rate that outpaces the overall city’s five times over.

The city has declined to release a facility-by-facility breakdown of those cases or identify the number of corrections officers who have fallen ill, citing privacy concerns. Anecdotally, Trueheart said, he knows of about 17.

City spokesperson Deana Gamble said the Department of Prisons has been operating under the assumption that everyone could be positive for the coronavirus and continues to evaluate measures to keep guards and inmates safe.

Last week, jail administrators implemented a “shelter in cell” policy for inmates, allowing them out only once a day in groups of 10 or fewer to shower and use the phone — an effort to better adhere to social distancing recommendations. The only outside contractors still being let in are medical providers, who are subject to strict safety rules, Gamble said.

The Department of Prisons "has maintained active and ongoing communication with the union from the outset,” she said in a statement. “We take the feedback and concerns of our staff, partners and inmates very seriously ... and we have responded to everything that has evolved throughout this crisis.”

Corrections officers at George W. Hill remain concerned about the shortage of personal protective equipment and testing protocols implemented by the GEO Group, the private firm that manages the facility.

A company spokesperson said that since the jail detected its first positive coronavirus case last month, it has taken “unprecedented measures” — including installing hand-sanitizer stations, staggering recreation times to limit the number of inmates who are out of their cells at any given time, and taking officers’ temperatures before they clock in for their shifts.

But one guard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he passed those daily temperature tests, which are administered by supervisors and not jail medical staff, and still tested positive for the virus.

Another officer who is self-quarantining after contracting the virus at work said staff were provided with only one N95 mask, and were told to keep it in a plastic bag after each shift and to reuse it for three or four days.

“We have inmates who have tested positive, and as officers, we work with them,” he said. “The social distancing doesn’t apply at the job. It’s more than likely every single one is going to be affected.”

County Council member Kevin Madden, chair of the county’s Jail Oversight Board, said the jail is pulling from the same pool of protective equipment that is supplying other front-line workers. He acknowledged that guards have been “asked to use PPE in a more extended way than what the box intended.”

Still, Madden praised the efforts of GEO in attempting to mitigate the virus for both corrections officers and inmates.

“They’ve been good partners in combating this,” he said.