By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
The Alabama Department of Corrections on Friday reported the first three confirmed cases of COVID-19 within its prisons.
One of the diagnosed inmates, a 66 year old with a terminal illness, died Thursday, but an official cause of death has not yet been determined, the ADOC said in a statement on its website.
Dave Thomas, an inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility, died at a local hospital less than 24 hours after testing positive for COVID-19, ADOC said in the statement. Thomas was taken to a hospital on April 4 because of preexisting conditions. Thomas’ exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.
The other two confirmed cases of COVID-19 are a 52 year old also at St. Clair and a 33-year-old at Bullock Correctional Facility. The 52 year old has been transferred to a hospital for treatment, the 33 year old is being “treated and carefully monitored by his physicians,” according to ADOC.
“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,” ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in the statement. “We’ve planned extensively, we’ve trained thoroughly, and now we are activating the containment strategies outlined in our (Pandemic Continuity of Operations Plan) to slow the spread of this virus and ensure we continue to protect all those who live and work in our facilities to the best of our ability.”
Following the diagnosis, ADOC quarantined a group of inmates out of one dormitory at St. Clair and quarantined an entire dormitory at Bullock. The ADOC says the quarantine zones are “fully operational.”
As of Thursday, six ADOC staff members have also tested positive for COVID-19.
So far, 57 inmates have been tested for COVID-19, according to the latest numbers available from the department. As of January, there were more than 21,000 inmates in the state’s crowded prisons.
Advocacy groups have warned that prisons’ packed dormitories could lead to a deadly situation if the virus gets inside. They’ve called for parole of inmates near the end of their sentences or early release for some others in an effort to ease crowding.
“Today’s tragic revelation should not come as a shock,” Shay Farley, interim deputy policy officer for the Southeast, Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. “No matter their design or age, prisons do not allow for spatial distancing or for individuals to protect themselves. While ADOC has only tested 57 people in their custody – an irresponsibly low number – it is evident they have not done what is necessary to protect either those incarcerated or their employees.
“Now is the time for swift action. Gov. Kay Ivey, Commissioner Dunn, and Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Director Charlie Graddick must work together to pursue all release mechanisms to reduce overcrowding: medical furlough and medical parole for the most vulnerable population and parole all within two years of their release date immediately.”
The Bureau of Pardons and Paroles suspended parole hearings last month amid COVID-19 concerns and this week said they’d resume them in mid-May.
According to the ADOC, they have taken preventative measures to protect inmates and employees, including establishing isolation areas for inmates who exhibit symptoms, providing additional hygiene products like bars of soap to inmates, doing temperature checks and enhancing screening for facility employees.
A 30-day moratorium on all county jail transfers to prisons began on March 20 and in-person visitation has also been suspended.