Coffee Creek prison tries to mitigate coronavirus risks
When you consider the multitudinous aspects of the Wilsonville community impacted by the novel coronavirus, the elderly, schools, restaurants and medical establishments might come to mind first.
But there is an oft forgotten population of nearly 2,000 residents who face risk and isolation — the adults in custody (AICs) at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), a women's prison in town, not to mention prison employees.
With that in mind, the Oregon Department of Corrections and CCCF have taken some measures to reduce risk of the virus penetrating and spreading within prison grounds and to prepare in case that happens.
For one, the prison has suspended visitation for anyone who isn't a medical professional.
Inside the prison, CCCF has limited meal congregation to about 25 AICs at a time while new inmates eat meals in their cells. During instances where they are together, AICs are encouraged to remain at least six feet apart.
Within the cells, AICs would likely be exposed if a cellmate were to contract the virus.
"In the cell there are two people and the cells are 8-to-10 feet apart. They are pretty close together and there's a lot of hard surfaces. We've been focusing on cell sanitation, having them wipe down their desks, sinks, toilet areas, the bars on the bunks as they climb up and are encouraging hand washing each time they leave their cell and go back to their cell," Coffee Creek Superintendent Paula Myers said.
Myers said no AICs at Coffee Creek have contracted the virus but the prison has made room for 30 beds in one side of its special housing unit now reserved for those showing symptoms of the disease COVID-19. Testing, however, is not taking place at this point and Myers said AICs with symptoms could be sent to the unit without a positive test.
"They wouldn't have to be tested before going to the new facility (the special housing unit). If we suspect that it's a presumptive case, they have all the signs and symptoms, we are going to react sooner than later," Myers said.
Though Myers said AICs aren't always able maintain social distancing, she stressed that a bigger risk is at play.
"The reality is the AICs are more concerned of not getting it from each other, but an employee who has been in the community everyday," she said.
Myers said staff tries to maintain social distancing with AICs but that instances like pat down searches make that a challenge.
"Some precautions are encouraging training officers to search AICs from the side and having AICs turn in the opposite direction and making sure staff are wearing gloves and washing hands frequently," Myers said.
The prison also screens employees before they enter the facility and have changed pathways and protocol to reduce the frequency of staffers touching the same items or standing in close proximity to each other and are conducting meetings via video conferencing.
Both staff and AICs are advised to monitor whether they or someone else is sick.
While Coffee Creek has had trouble maintaining desired staffing levels due to struggles in hiring qualified employees in recent years, Myers said prison staff has yet to be stretched thin in the wake of the virus. The prison has plans in place if staffing shortages were to take place, many of which would impact AICs.
"If staffing levels dropped further, we would have to look at out-of-cell time, less day room (leisure time)," Myers said. "We may have to scale back on work assignments within the facility … Instead of them coming for the meal we would have to bring the meal to them."
Also, activities like religious services, education, job skills and drug and alcohol treatments programs have been suspended. And non-urgent medical appointments for AICs have been limited.
Myers holds "town hall" meetings to keep AICs abreast of virus-related news and changes taking place.
"I think they are taking in the information and have been very understanding of why we're making the decisions we are," she said.
She also said behavioral specialists are conducting regular checks to identify depression, anxiety or similar issues among AICs.
Beyond that, Myers didn't mention any programs to help provide AICs some social interaction in this isolated time, though the corrections department is allowing two free five-minute phone calls per week.
"I'm encouraging them to continue to have good hygiene and sanitation because the longer we can maintain a healthy environment the more we can maintain some normalcy in this unnormal time" she said.
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