11 staffers at NH Department of Corrections test positive for COVID-19

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New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord. Photo/Nancy West

CONCORD, NH – The state Department of Corrections’ website showed Friday that 11 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, but so far no inmates have been sickened.

⇒ RELATED STORY: How well is the state justice and corrections system protecting inmates and detainees? 

Seven of the staff members work at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord with about 1,385 inmates. One of the staffers works at the New Hampshire Facility for Women with about 176 inmates, and three work in field services.

Only 10 inmates have been tested for COVID-19, but Corrections spokesman Laura Montenegro said contact-tracing is ongoing. The department won’t say if they are corrections officers or work elsewhere in the prisons.

Six inmates at the men’s prison in Concord were tested, three at the women’s prison in Concord and one at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin was tested, though no staffers have tested positive there. All were negative, according to the website.

There were no staff members at the Secure Psychiatric Unit or Residential Treatment Unit at the prison who tested positive.

The website can be seen here https://www.nh.gov/nhdoc/covid/index.html

The positive tests for staffers date back to early April and four have already been medically cleared to return to work. The other seven will remain out of work until medically cleared, according to the website.

“Residents are only tested when they present with symptoms outlined per the CDC guidelines or have been identified during contact-tracing to have had close, prolonged contact with an infected person,” the website said.

Montenegro said she received emailed questions late Friday from InDepthNH.org and will need to get more information before answering them, probably on Monday. She said most answers are available on the DOC website. (see below)

Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU-NH, said public health experts have been warning since the beginning of the outbreak that jails and prisons are tinderboxes for COVID-19, threatening the health of residents, employees, and the greater community.

“Across the country, we have already seen devastating outbreaks in correctional facilities—and it was always a matter of when, not if, it happened in New Hampshire. That is why we have been urging every jail and prison in the state to actively and compassionately grant releases, and we commend the work of the many facilities in New Hampshire, including the Department of Corrections, that have begun this process.

“We are urging our state and county elected officials to do more to support these facilities and to decrease population density as much as safely possible in light of COVID-19,” Chaffee said.

Robin Melone, who heads the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she appreciates the significant measures the Department of Corrections has taken to mitigate the risk created by COVID-19 but said there is only so much that can be done to keep this pandemic from reaching behind the walls.

“These positive staff test results are terrifying for the inmates at the facilities and their families and undoubtedly for other staff, but they are not surprising.  We have to understand that our inmate populations cannot be isolated from what happens in our communities.  There will eventually be a positive inmate test.  Every inmate is on edge hoping it will not be them,” Melone said.

Questions and Answers from the Department of Corrections website:

What are the steps in place if staff or residents show signs of COVID-19?

If a staff member shows any symptom of COVID 19 – fever, cough, shortness of breath – or indicates on the screening form they have been in contact with anyone who has COVID-19 or has recently traveled based on CDC guidance, that staff member will be directed to go home and

a. call their healthcare provider or
b. call their HR representative if they do not have symptoms but need to quarantine due to close contact or travel.
Residents who show any sign of COVID-19 will be isolated and will be attended to by a medical staff member.

Who will receive face masks?

Staff will be provided and required at a minimum to wear a fabric face covering during their full duty shift. This is not required if they are working a solitary post (e.g. perimeter, single post control room).

Surgical masks will be used for any resident who is symptomatic of COVID-19. Residents with confirmed COVID-19 who are outside of their designated isolation unit, or in the presence of any staff member treating or escorting them. Fabric face coverings can be substituted for surgical masks in the above scenarios when surgical mask supplies are not available. N95 masks are to be used by medical staff with residents who are confirmed positive of COVID-19 residents, or suspected COVID-19 residents during assessment and treatment.

Can residents be released on medical parole?

In accordance with RSA 651-A:10-a, the Commissioner and the Director of Medical and Forensic services may recommend to the Adult Parole Board, individuals who meet the conditions for medical parole.

How is the NHDOC engaging in physical distancing?

The Department has implemented the recommendations as outlined by the CDC for Correctional and Detention Facilities and made operational adjustments accordingly to include but not limited to:

Increased space between individuals waiting in lines and waiting areas, adjusting locations of waiting to larger spaces, moved furniture apart when not affixed to the floor.

Created recreational opportunities where individuals can spread out.

Stagger time in recreation spaces and schedule them by living unit.

Reduce number allowed in groups at one time to 10 or under.

Adjusted meal times and movements.

Implemented alternatives as appropriate to existing group activities.

Rearrange schedule movements to minimize mixing of individuals from different housing areas.

What is being done for the medically higher-risk residents in custody?

In addition to increasing sanitization within facilities, staff are amplifying efforts to both monitor and reduce potential exposure and transmission of the virus. Individuals who demonstrate symptoms will be provided with PPE as medically directed, and either quarantined, medically isolated, or transferred to a hospital. A medical team has identified higher-risk residents and cell-feeds are being provided to these residents.

Does the NHDOC have a plan to quarantine individuals should there be a positive case in any of the facilities?

Yes, the facilities have plans in place if we have positive or suspected cases of COVID-19 to engage in medical isolation or quarantine as appropriate to the case. Frequent drills are occurring in the facilities to ensure staff know how to respond.

What steps are you taking to protect staff and residents?

The NHDOC is taking every precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities. Including but not limited to:

Providing COVID-19 screenings including temperature checks of all individuals entering NHDOC prison facilities and the Secure Psychiatric Unit.

Enhancing sanitization and providing employees and residents access to sanitization products

Adhering to the CDC’s physical distancing guidelines in prison activities

Restricting transfers from other correctional facilities

Suspending visitations and volunteers

Converted to digital parole hearings

Attorney Client Communication 

In accordance with RSA 651-A:10-a, the Commissioner and the Director of Medical and Forensic services may recommend to the Adult Parole Board, individuals who meet the conditions for medical parole.

About this Author

Nancy West


Nancy West is publisher of InDepthNH.org.