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Alabama prison system reports COVID-19 death, cases

BY KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The first Alabama prisoner has died after testing positive for the new coronavirus, the state Department of Corrections reported Friday as it confirmed two other COVID-19 cases among inmates.

Dave Thomas, 66, who the prison system described as already terminally ill, died Thursday at a hospital within 24 hours of testing positive for COVID-19, the department said. Thomas, who had been housed at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, had been hospitalized since April 4 to receive critical care related to his preexisting conditions.

Another inmate at St. Clair and an inmate at Bullock County Correctional Facility have also tested positive for COVID-19. The state said it has quarantined a group of inmates out of one dormitory at St. Clair and quarantined an entire dormitory at Bullock

The announcement came after inmate advocates and health experts expressed concerns that the state’s overcrowded prisons would become a breeding ground for a deadly outbreak and urged the state to make additional changes.

The state prison chief said the system is implementing containment strategies.

“In addition to the numerous, system-wide preventative and precautionary measures instituted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities, the ADOC has been aggressively preparing for this day, which was an inevitability based on what we are seeing across the country and world,” Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement.

The department said it is distributing face masks to inmates. Masks are being made at sewing factories at two state prisons. The prison system said all inmates should have two face masks within a week and they plan to eventually provide four.

The system said inmates have access to liquid antibacterial soap.

Social distancing, leaving at least 6 feet of space between individuals, is often a top recommendation for avoiding the coronavirus. However, that is difficult to impossible in prisons where inmates often live in tightly packed dormitories with rows of beds or bunk beds.

In January, Alabama prisons were at 170% capacity.

More than 40 public health professionals, including experts at Harvard’s School of Public Health, sent an open letter to Gov. Kay Ivey and other elected officials in Alabama urging virus containment changes and steps to reduce population density in state prisons and jails.

“Even with increased access to hand sanitizer and soap for hand washing, physical distancing is impossible in Alabama’s densely populated jails and prisons,” the letter read.

Dr. Max Michael, the former dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health and one the letter’s signers, said prisons and jails are a potential powder keg for an outbreak to rapidly spread because of proximity of inmates, preexisting conditions and other factors.

“That is just a setup for an incredibly vulnerable group of people that once the exposure starts you have to be prepared to truly stop and mitigate the spread,” Michael said. He added that he understood state officials face enormous challenges with large prison population combined with a staffing shortage.

The group recommended several changes, including to monitor that inmates have access to soap and sanitizer and to release certain non-violent inmates who are within six months of the end of their sentence, as is being done in Kentucky.

The group also wants officials to resume parole hearings and instruct the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to increase the pace of hearings to begin clearing its backlog.

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