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Correctional center puts pandemic measures in place

By Staff | May 8, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT The Heart of America Correctional & Treatment Center in Rugby.

The Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center in Rugby has implemented procedures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 in the facility, according to an official there.

Representatives from law enforcement and the jail are on the Pierce County ND Resources task force, a local government group working to address the worldwide pandemic.

Two individuals in Pierce County tested positive for the virus in March, however, no new cases in the county have been reported since then.

HACTC Administrator Mike Graner described procedures to limit transmission in the jail facility, which takes in new arrestees regularly and processes laundry for the Heart of America Medical Center.

“One of the first things that we implemented when precautions were being taken was stopping volunteer services from entering the facility,” Graner said. “Our volunteer services mainly consist of various volunteers in the area, mainly providing spiritual or religious services to the inmates. We usually have a volunteer group come in every evening of the week.”

“Along with that, the other area that we cut down on with contact was attorney visits taking place in person – contact visits,” Graner added. “We did have other resources available for attorney visits that include phone interviews, making our teleconference equipment available to the attorneys.”

“We also shut off one of our visitation areas, which would be a non-contact visitation area and made it a private area with a non-recorded phone line so individuals could still visit with their attorneys,” Graner added.

Graner said the facility still takes in laundry from Heart of America Medical Center. Inmate workers wash and fold linens and load them on carts before correctional officers set them out to be picked up by hospital workers.

“I spoke early in this process with Ron Biggs over at the hospital regarding laundry. Ron indicated to us that any dirty linens that were potentially exposed to COVID-19 would not be sent over to our facility for laundry service; those would remain onsite,” Graner said.

“Laundry was able to continue as planned,” Graner said.

“The only linens that were not being sent to us throughout this (pandemic period) were linens that were potentially exposed to COVID-19,” Graner added. “All other linens as planned had continued to come over to us. We continued with hospital laundry as planned, very little interruption, just ensuring that our offenders that are working in laundry here not only had PPE (personal protective equipment) available to them that was necessary but also they donned the appropriate PPE when they were handling the dirty linens from the hospital.”

Graner said the laundry crew consists of inmate workers “who have been here for months, well before the COVID-19 pandemic started to be an issue in this state. Same with our kitchen crew. We have a little more turnover with our kitchen crew. Still, individuals who have cycled through there have been in the facility for quite some time. No one that’s been admitted since March has been on a work crew such as that.”

Graner added, “Since about mid-March, we’ve actually noticed a significant decline in our new offenders coming into the facility. For the month of April, we had seven new offenders booked into our facility.”

“That’s a difference of upwards of 60 individuals, where we sometimes average anywhere from 60 to 70, upwards of 80 bookings in a month,” he noted.

Graner described the protocol for inmates booked during the pandemic.

“When the individuals came into our facility during these precautions, they were quarantined, and are quarantined in a single cell for a period of 14 days,” Graner said. “During that quarantine time, we have staff, both correctional staff and nursing staff monitoring these individuals, taking temperature checks daily and keeping track of any symptoms that do present themselves.”

Graner said the screening process begins in the sally port, or garage entrance to the facility.

“That screening consists of asking about symptoms, asking if they’ve traveled and asking if they’ve been in close contact with anyone who’s positive for COVID-19,” Graner said. “If an individual came into the facility with a ‘yes’ answer to any of those screening questions-symptoms are present or they were in close contact with someone who’s been positive-they would be in isolation status, which would be fairly similar to a quarantine status, but different precautions are taken when staff are interacting with them, delivering their food, etc.”

“That,” Graner added, “fortunately, we have not experienced at this point, but we do plan for.”

“If an individual were to remain symptom-free during that quarantine period, then they would be housed in general population. With that being said, we had very few individuals who were here for the 14-day quarantine period and were housed after that period,” Graner said.

“Most individuals that came in did not remain here for that 14-day period. They may have bonded out, they may have been released or situations such as that,” he added.

“Officers have all the necessary PPE that they can don when interacting with individuals under quarantine or isolation,” Graner said. “When it comes to food service, all the food for individuals that are on quarantine are on disposable dinnerware to help cut down on cross contamination.”

Graner said the facility allows inmates to visit with friends and loved ones on regular visitation days. However, visitors are spaced apart from each other with empty chairs between them. The visitation area is designed for non-contact visits so inmates are separated from their visitors by Plexiglass and communicate with them by telephone.

Graner acknowledged the pandemic added stress to the environment at HACTC for both inmates and staff.

“We have not seen an uptick in behaviors such as fights, assaults, etc. that would indicate a negative affect on offender’s attitudes and behaviors but it definitely has a potential to,” Graner said.

Graner said the facility made an agreement with Securus Technologies, a company providing inmate telephone and videoconferencing services.

“One thing we agreed to with them was to provide all inmates in custody with two free phone calls every week,” Graner noted. “That was one small effort made to help reduce any negative impact that might be taking place because of restrictions and the uncertainty of what’s going on during this time.”

“I really hand it to my staff,” Graner added. “I think they’ve all taken this seriously. They’ve all taken precautions in their home life outside of work to stay safe. That really shows when it comes to our staffing levels. Our staffing levels have experienced very impact during this time. Our staff has been healthy. We have no individuals through work here have been tested for COVID-19. We have no individuals (under any circumstances), who have tested positive for this.”

“With the exception of one of our officers, we have not experienced anybody having to be away from work because they are symptomatic,” Graner continued. “We have one officer, through her responsibilities for the National Guard, that has been away for a 14-day quarantine period but that was not as a result of working the front lines here.”

Graner added, “I think we’re no different from a lot of places right now, just a lot of uncertainty. There’s definitely been anxiety and fear that comes with this simply because of the industry that we work in, the number of people we are exposed to, the potential of exposure is high in this environment so there’s definitely anxiety and fear that comes with that.”

“That’s been experienced by a number of our staff,” Graner said of uncertainty and anxiety, “but they’ve continued to make all the right efforts to stay healthy during this time and we’ve done our best to make sure they have the tools and the PPE-all the resources available to make sure they can stay safe.”

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