Prison file image

Prison file image

One of the barred gates used to seal off sections of the Idaho State Correctional Center on Thursday, July 18, 2019.

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that people wear masks in public as far back as early April to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus, the Idaho Department of Correction didn’t require its staff to wear them until Wednesday — the same day the first Idaho inmate tested positive for the virus.

Nor is the department the only correctional entity to drag its feet in making that a requirement. Deputies who work in the Canyon County Jail are required to wear masks “in dealing with any precautionary aspects of potential suspected cases with inmates, but (masks) are not required at all times,” according to county spokesman Joe Decker. There have, so far, been no positive cases of the virus in the Canyon County Jail.

Employees of the Ada County Sheriff’s Office who work in the county jail’s booking, health services and classification areas have the option of wearing a mask, office spokesman Patrick Orr said Monday. Inmates are typically separated from the general population for eight days when they first come in, Orr said, and after that they are sorted into a more permanent situation.

Orr confirmed the office’s screening process identified one jail deputy who was told not to come to work and instead get tested for COID-19. Orr confirmed the deputy on Friday tested positive. That deputy is currently not working, he said, but no jail inmates have tested positive for the illness.

As of Monday, there have been three positive cases among the inmate population in the Idaho Department of Correction. All three cases were on the same cell block in the Idaho State Correctional Center.

Idaho inmate Leotis Branigh III, 44 isn’t on that cell block, but he is in the Idaho State Correctional Center, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. He confirmed in an interview Friday that prison staff members are wearing masks, but said many of them weren’t prior to Wednesday.

Branigh was frustrated with the situation because he pointed out inmates weren’t going to spontaneously develop the virus. It had to arrive in the prison from an outside source, such as a staff member. He pointed out interactions between staff members and inmates aren’t socially distant, and he used the example of a staff member handcuffing an inmate as an example.

He also pointed out it wouldn’t be hard for the virus to spread within the facility once it arrived.

“If one officer had it, and they were working in the chow hall, they could have exposed 1,000 inmates to it,” he said.

The Idaho State Correctional Center is one of six department facilities clustered together south of Boise, just outside of Kuna. Prior to arriving at the center, Branigh was imprisoned in the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, and he remembers officers didn’t wear masks in that facility either. He asked them about it once, he said, and they told him they didn’t wear masks because they weren’t required to.

“They knew about this months ago,” Branigh said. “The CDC put those guidelines out months ago.”

As of Monday, the department planned to conduct its first mass-testing of inmates, on everyone in the cell block where the infected inmates lived. Masks are now required for all department staff members, “movement to, from, and within ISCC has been significantly restricted” while the department conducts contact tracing on the infected inmates, according to department spokesman Jeff Ray.

The new coronavirus stayed out of Idaho’s prison population for longer than it did in other states. Thus far, 89 people in federal prisons have died from the virus, and earlier in the pandemic the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City had an infection rate seven times that of the city in general, CBSN reported in March. Idaho Gov. Brad Little in a recent press release lauded the department on how long it took the virus to infect an Idaho inmate. Earlier on in the pandemic, inmates made thousands of cloth face masks, enough for each inmate to have three.

Branigh said each inmate did get three masks, but said many didn’t wear them. They didn’t see the need — if the virus was going to infect the prison population, inmates themselves most likely wouldn’t be the vectors for it. It had to enter the system from outside.

“IDOC was absolutely negligent,” Branigh told the Idaho Press.

Many of the department’s facilities fall under the jurisdiction of Central District Health — an organization that has, for months, been imploring the public to wear masks. Asked if the district worked with IDOC in crafting a virus-prevention strategy, Brandon Atkins, district director of family and clinic services, said the district works with IDOC “specifically on positive case(s) and exposure risks as we do any other business.”

“We have provided specific guidance on processes necessary for management of illness in a congregate setting,” Atkins wrote in a message to the Idaho Press.

That guidance included suggesting employees wear masks, according to Atkins. He said the district worked with Corizon Health, the department’s health care partner, to promote that message.

“It is our understanding that this recommendation came early in the initial conversations between the (Idaho Department of Health and Welfare) and the facility,” Atkins wrote.

“Like the CDC, we strongly recommended everyone living and working in our facilities wear masks when unable to maintain appropriate physical distance from others,” Ray wrote to the Idaho Press on Monday. “From March 13 through June 18, we had a total of six staff members test positive for COVID-19. Idaho was one of three states without a positive case among members of its incarcerated population. The following week, as Idaho experienced a surge of COVID-19 cases, we saw the first evidence of staff-to-staff transmission.”

Ray notes the order to wear masks went into effect on Wednesday.

Branigh was confused because the Idaho Supreme Court laid down an order — still in effect — requiring everyone wear a mask inside courthouses. He didn’t know about that rule until his lawyer mentioned it to him, and once he did, he was frustrated the same logic wouldn’t apply to prisons as well.

“Now that it’s here, who knows how many people have it,” he said.