JAMESTOWN, N.D. — It was only a matter of time before a North Dakota prison had a coronavirus outbreak, leaders said, despite expanded efforts to keep the illness on the outside.

Inmates and staff wore masks, visits were suspended, pods were separated and prisons accepted a limited number of new prisoners.

Still, the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck and the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown recorded climbing case numbers starting a month ago. Last week, active cases among inmates at the JRCC exceeded 200, accounting for more than half of the prison’s population, according to figures from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Inmates and staff followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closely, officials said. However, the virus getting into a facility and causing an outbreak seemed imminent.

Miles of razor wire surround the James River Correctional Center as seen in this file photo. Some 220 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the JRCC, which is more than half the inmate population. John M. Steiner / The Sun
Miles of razor wire surround the James River Correctional Center as seen in this file photo. Some 220 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the JRCC, which is more than half the inmate population. John M. Steiner / The Sun

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The rise in inmate cases at the state's two largest facilities came after North Dakota’s case numbers started to rise in early October, according to interim state corrections department director Dave Krabbenhoft.

“Our institutions aren’t immune from seeing that,” he said, noting staff have to go home to families and come back to work. “My feeling is community spread really backed us into a corner."

The spread of the virus into the prison system is likely the result of North Dakota not mandating practices recommended by health officials to outside communities, said Dane DeKrey, North Dakota’s advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Prisoners getting the disease when they and correctional officers are doing everything to prevent an outbreak is unfair and presents a “cruel irony,” DeKrey said.

“The non-rule followers who found themselves in prison are following the rules to get this pandemic (under control),” he said. “The people … in society are doing the opposite.”

Taking the pandemic seriously

Since mid-March when testing began in prisons, more than 300 inmates have tested positive for the virus, according to state corrections department data.

Most of the prisoners who tested positive were asymptomatic, said Dr. John Hagan, the state correctional health authority. About 10% have shown mild symptoms, and 5% had moderate cases, he said.

No one in the prison system has died from the virus, and only two have been hospitalized, he added.

No prison facility in North Dakota had more than 15 cases between mid-March through mid-October, state officials said.

Case counts at the women's prison in New England and the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck have remained low. State corrections officials attributed that to preventative measures taken by staff and inmates, and the measures were taken by all facilities. Staff check on inmates often to monitor oxygen levels, temperatures and heart rates, Hagan said.

“Our residents have pulled together for us,” Krabbenhoft said.

Hagan said all facilities have separated pods to the best of their abilities. Staff wear personal protective equipment, conduct frequent testing and isolate infected inmates quickly, he added.

The James River Correctional Center, which has 406 residents, went from 15 total inmate cases on Oct. 17 to 163 last week. The state penitentiary in Bismarck, with 638 inmates, rose from 10 prisoner cases to 131 during that time.

The penitentiary allows for more social distancing, said Colby Braun, director of facility operations. Inmates may have their own cells or one cellmate. That has prevented more close contacts and a quick spread.

As a former mental health facility, the state correctional facility in Jamestown has closer quarters than other prisons, which may have contributed to a faster infection rate, Warden Chad Pringle said. The dorm capacity has been cut down from seven, but some inmates remain in close proximity, he said.

When inmates test positive, they are moved into quarantine and watched closely, Pringle said. That has helped the vast majority of inmates recover quickly, Hagan said.

“Jamestown has done spectacularly well at identifying these folks early and keeping them relatively healthy,” Hagan said.

As of Friday, the penitentiary had 41 active cases with 106 recoveries among inmates. The JRCC had 126 active cases, with 151 recoveries.

Pringle said he, his staff and the corrections department care very much about inmates and are taking the pandemic seriously.

"We are saddened every time somebody is sick," he said. "We're trying hard to keep people healthy."

Efforts to reduce spread

Some have suggested prisons in the U.S. reduce inmate populations, but North Dakota has already done that. A spring study from the Prison Policy Initiative noted the state did the most in the country to lower its prison population, an effort that cut inmate counts by 19% compared to Dec. 31.

North Dakota released more than 100 inmates in response to emergency coronavirus mitigation efforts. More have been released on a case-by-case basis.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has taken on more prisoners as trials resumed, but only at the New England prison and state penitentiary, Krabbenhoft said. Some are shifted to other facilities, he noted.

Prisoners and the corrections department have done everything they can to fight the pandemic, DeKrey said. The ACLU commended the states efforts to reduce prison populations in the past.

The illness is hard to contain without “proactive, serious measures,” DeKrey noted in citing national health organizations. Leaders’ delay in implementing mask mandates in communities, and the refusal by some to wear face coverings outside of prisons, has resulted in those on the inside being infected, he said.

“These folks can do everything right,” DeKrey said of prisoners. “They can do all of the social distancing that is possible in a prison. They can wear their masks. They can isolate. They are still at the mercy of other people’s decisions.”

People in prison have made bad choices, but they are not irredeemable, DeKrey said. They don’t deserve to get the virus or die because they are in prison, he said.

They also don’t have the control of who can come in and out of a facility, like a homeowner or business would, he said.

“They are sitting ducks,” he said.

Now that the virus has spread into the prisons, leaders should think about mitigation, DeKrey said.

For some, incarceration is appropriate, Krabbenhoft said. The prison can’t let everyone out because of a pandemic, he added.

The DOCR has done what it can to get inmates out if it is safe for both them and the public, Krabbenhoft said.

There are setbacks, Krabbenhoft said, but staff and inmates have stepped up to meet the challenges. Outside entities, including the jails and courts, also have contributed, he said.

“The resolve that people have shown every day stepping forth into this pandemic has been nothing short of heroic,” he said.