(KWQC) - The Iowa Department of Corrections said it has taken steps to address and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities.
"Early in March, what we did was we started dusting off our pandemic response plan and looking at that plan and saying, ‘this was written with mostly the flu in mind,’” said Cord Overton, communications director for the Iowa DOC.
“What needs to be updated in this plan so that it's relevant with what we know about COVID-19?"
Overton said the DOC's medical director worked with the safety director to update the plan.
Iowa DOC has published a copy of the updated pandemic plan/policy, which was designed to better apply to COVID-19.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Iowa's prison system was announced on April 18. The inmate was a new admission to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, according to the DOC.
As of April 28, IMCC has 15 confirmed COVID-19 cases in inmates and five confirmed cases in staff.
"We had our first inmate test positive for COVID-19 a couple weeks ago and the other inmates with confirmed COVID-19 were also in that intake unit,” Overton said. “Whether it came from the inmate that brought it in, or it was from another jail that they came from, they're coming from jails across the state into IMCC. Either way, it is isolated to the quarantine unit. We hope that we really keep it contained and isolated."
He said when it comes to planning, one of the things the DOC looked at was the intake process.
"A very obvious point of introduction to our facility is those people coming from county jail into the prison system,” Overton said. “At our medical prison, which is our intake prison, we started a quarantine process. We do a 14-day quarantine where they're kept away from the prison population and the staff working with them aren't going and working with other parts of the prison so that we can really limit the spread if indeed one of those people turns out to be carrying COVID-19."
According to Overton, "those that are confirmed are in medical isolation now.”
“Those that were around them in that quarantine process are being heavily observed, checked in on multiple times a day,” he said. “We're making sure staff working with these people are wearing the right PPE to limit their exposure and just doing everything we can to mitigate that spread should it start to crop up in this particular prison in Iowa City or in others around the state.
"As of right now in Iowa, we have 15 inmates that have tested positive in the prison system. Those are all located at the medical prison, though we've done testing for anybody that's displaying those symptoms.”
More testing, Overton said, could result in more cases.
"As we keep ramping up our testing at IMCC, which we've been doing, you might see more cases pop up,” he said. “We can get those people isolated and if they need treatment, we can get them the treatment they need whether it's there at the prison with our very qualified medical staff, or the University of Iowa clinics if they have an advanced need. We have a great partnership with them, and we'll take care of them any way we need to.”
Overton further explained, "Often times you can make a decision as a leader in an agency during these times, and those decisions can be criticized, but at the same time I want people to remember we're trying to do then best we can with the information we have and with the circumstances we're dealing with. We appreciate the flexibility, the feedback and we're all kind of finding our way through this crisis.
"We're also keeping the mentality this isn't just going to be in the prison system over in two weeks or in a month even, this is very well something that could be lasting throughout the summer. We have to stay vigilant. We have to make sure whatever plans in place are sustainable, so if we let our guard down this virus doesn't all of a sudden have a widespread outbreak in our facilities.”
Overton said capacity is “certainly a concern here in the Iowa correctional system”
"When we started the process of looking at our pandemic plans as it relates to COVID-19, our prison capacity was about 122 percent, so about 22 percent over that designed capacity. So, we've had to create space inside of these prisons that we're over capacity by."
Overton said a priority of the DOC is to create enough
space to be able to quarantine large groups of inmates if needed during the pandemic.
“That's really hard to do in a prison that's way over capacity,” he said. “So, we looked at the established process here in Iowa for decreasing the prison population. That is basically the Iowa Board of Parole."
Overton said the DOC had conversations with board members from the board of parole.
"Basically, they review the incarcerated people that are eligible for parole and determine whether or not this person is likely to be successful under community supervision as opposed to prison supervision," he said.
Overton said the DOC brings in on average approximately 500 inmates per month, while also releasing approximately 500 each month.
He said the DOC asked if the board of parole, in their process, may be able to accelerate the rate of reviews.
For example, he said, if somebody was to be reviewed normally in August, “perhaps they could be reviewed now and that helps us with our capacity problem."
Overton said DOC has begun to see some success on that front.
“That's thanks to two main things,” he said. “One, the board of parole's efforts. They've really stepped up and started doing some accelerated reviews. Also adhering to looking at that criteria in Iowa Code that said what to consider and whether or not somebody should go out in the community for parole supervision."
Overton said admissions have gone down significantly at the DOC.
For a week now, "we haven't had hardly any admissions."
"Because of the outbreak at IMCC we've asked the county jails give us some time to get this under control, and then we can talk about admitting inmates again,” he said. “The thing is, every day we go without admitting people into the prison system, they're probably sitting in a county jail somewhere.
"We were really thankful for the jails for understanding that we have to deal with this for the moment, said Overton, "they've been great to work with us on this. In fact, we're making sure they're getting masks for their county jails that are being produced by our inmates, we're just working all of this together in this system to kind of navigate through this process."