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ACLU seeking records on whether coronavirus has infected North Dakota inmates

Outside Chances Corrections officer Calvin Kamara
Corrections officer Calvin Kamara performs a routine check on occupied cells at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in May 2019. Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — A civil rights group has asked North Dakota to release documents expected to reveal if the coronavirus has infected state prison inmates and whether officials knew about “the potentially catastrophic impacts of COVID-19 on their prisons and the communities surrounding them.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota submitted the public records request Wednesday, April 29, to Gov. Doug Burgum and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The ACLU is seeking documents on when the state first knew to what extent coronavirus would impact prisons, if models the DOCR used were “fundamentally flawed” and if recommendations for preventing virus spread were ignored. The request also asks for communications about possible infections and deaths caused by the illness, and complaints made by prison staff and inmates.

“Public health experts have rung multiple alarm bells about the spread of COVID-19 in our prison system,” North Dakota ACLU Advocacy Director Dane DeKrey said in a statement. “Despite those warnings, the depopulation of jails, prisons and other detention facilities continues too slowly to avoid catastrophe.”

No state prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus, DOCR spokeswoman Kayli Richards told The Forum Wednesday. She noted staff and prisoners have not complained about conditions in state prisons.

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"In fact, our residents have been complimentary and grateful for how well they are being taken care of and the precautions we have taken to keep them safe," Richards said in an email. "The DOCR had detailed plans in place long before we had the first COVID-19 case in the state."

The public records request was coordinated with the ACLU national office and more than 30 affiliates as the group filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Trump administration. The ACLU is seeking information about what the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other states knew about the impacts of coronavirus on prisons and surrounding communities.

North Dakota has implemented several policy changes to prevent inmates and prison staff from becoming infected, including halting in-person visits. The DOCR previously declined to admit new inmates, but now is accepting new inmates based on certain criteria, Richards said earlier this month.

“We are … being extremely cautious as we bring in new admissions so as not to introduce the virus into our vulnerable population,” she said in an email. “We are working closely with the jails to establish who should come into our facilities first.”

The state has granted early parole to about 100 inmates in response to the pandemic, Richards said Wednesday. "The DOCR has approved community placements for an additional 72 individuals," she said.

In a statement to The Forum, Burgum's office said the state prison system has "done a tremendous job of being proactive and taking appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of DOCR residents and team members."

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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