Oklahoma Prison Chief Discusses COVID-19 Testing In State Prisons

Apr 30, 2020

Prisons across the United States are struggling with a rash of COVID-19 infections. In Oklahoma, two prisoners and nine corrections employees have tested positive for the disease.

StateImpact’s Quinton Chandler spoke with Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow about the state’s ability to test for COVID-19 in prisons.

Update: Since this conversation, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in prisons across the country has more than tripled to at least 9,437 positive cases. Most states that are testing, like Oklahoma, are determining which prisoners should be tested on a case by case basis.

Several states that recently began mass testing prisoners discovered a rash of infections especially among prisoners who didn’t show any symptoms.

When asked if these events had changed his thoughts on how to conduct COVID-19 testing in Oklahoma prisons, Director Scott Crow sent StateImpact this statement:

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is continuing to increase the number of tests performed, in coordination with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, to first ensure staff test all inmates who present with virus symptoms and then those about to release into the community. So far, the number of symptomatic inmates and staff have been very low due in part to the movement and sanitation controls we put in place early on. Discussions on expanding testing is certainly on the table, as the state moves toward opening back up for business and as the agency begins to review how we return to some version of normal operations.

TRANSCRIPT:

Quinton Chandler Director, I want to thank you for taking the time out to talk. (I) appreciate you coming on.

Scott Crow Yes, sir. It’s my privilege.

Quinton Chandler So I want to ask you some questions about your work to prevent COVID-19 infections in the corrections system. What is the process for an inmate to get tested for the disease?

Scott Crow Early on, when we started experiencing potential exposures, we worked through our medical providers to understand the amount of tests that they could provide (the Department of Corrections).

And this was during a time that tests were, I mean, maybe 200 tests were available for the whole state and we were initially able to acquire 70 tests. And from that point forward, we’ve actually been able to acquire the number of tests really that we need on a daily, weekly basis to test every inmate that needs to be (tested).

And as an example of that: when we had the inmate that tested positive at Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester, the day after he tested positive, we reached out to our medical provider and asked if they could provide 293 tests to test all of the other inmates that were on the same unit as this individual, and they did so.

Quinton Chandler To get a test to prisoners, basically, first, you identify who is showing symptoms or has been exposed. Just like  people outside here in the public, you have to have a specific reason why you’re testing?

Scott Crow That’s absolutely correct. We do not have an unlimited supply of tests. That’s important to note. One of the things that’s different about us than the public is that we have very controlled environments. And so we have more of a target audience and that allows us to not require the number of tests that the public needs for widespread testing.

In the instance of Jackie Brannon, fortunately, we’ve not had that occurrence across the system because, what, we tried to do with that one positive test was to get ahead of it by testing everyone on that unit so we could completely lock that unit down and begin a process of treating those inmates if they were symptomatic.

And so, there’s really criteria that our medical staff use prior to just administering tests to everyone. You have to meet those certain elements to be tested.

Quinton Chandler There are some states that have kind of tried to model what is going to happen because of COVID-19. Do you have any estimates on how many people (in prison) are likely to become infected with COVID-19 as this pandemic moves forward?

Scott Crow I’m hoping that the number remains relatively small. We have planned for as many as (200) to 300 inmates initially, just simply because we want to make sure that we were being proactive with the resources that we could have available if we were to reach that number.

And that is from things ranging from the isolation cells that are in each of our facilities to identifying gymnasiums that we could transform into temporary infirmaries to be able to accommodate larger numbers of inmates.

Quinton Chandler I’m wondering if, director, if you are worried that there could be more people who are infected inside the system, especially considering the numbers other states have seen and the particular challenges with limiting this virus’ spread in prisons, considering that it’s so hard to social distance?

Scott Crow I’m not worried. I’m just concerned about the overall impact of COVID-19 to not only prisons, but all of society in general. I think that we’re we’re still scurrying to try to figure out how to deal with this pandemic event.

You know, in corrections, absolutely. We are concerned and this will have my utmost attention for months, weeks and months ahead.

Editors Note: This story has been updated to include a new statement from Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow on the possibility of conducting mass testing in Oklahoma prisons.

Since this conversation, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in prisons across the country has more than tripled to at least 9,437 positive cases.

Most states, like Oklahoma, are determining which prisoners should be tested on a case by case basis.

Several states that recently began mass testing prisoners discovered a rash of infections especially among prisoners who didn’t show any symptoms.