With just two confirmed COVID-19 cases among the state’s prison population, Oklahoma has so far dodged a bullet.
But how long it can continue, especially if testing is not ramped up, is a big question, a prison reform leader warned.
“I think it’s a very scary situation,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “I think it’s a situation that could get out of hand in a heartbeat.”
Along with the two inmates, at least nine correctional officers, who come and go from the facilities, had also tested positive as of last week, he said.
“The reality is we don’t know exactly what the magnitude of the situation is because we are not engaging in widespread testing within our prison system,” said Steele, speaking Tuesday as part of the Tulsa World’s latest Let’s Talk virtual town hall.
Steele, former Oklahoma speaker of the House, joined Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado to talk about the challenges facing prisons and jails during the pandemic.
The event was moderated by Wayne Greene, editor of editorial pages for the Tulsa World, and sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
Steele said the overcrowding of the state’s prisons is a major complicating factor. Before the pandemic, the system was at 109% of capacity. That’s down to 103% currently, he said, due in part to the precautionary move of halting all transfers from jails.
“I want to be fair,” Steele said. “I think within the situation, the Department of Corrections is doing the very best they can to try to protect the health and well-being of those who are there.”
The precautions taken, such as lockdowns and limiting visitation, have been helpful, he said.
But prisons and jails “tend to be petri dishes,” he added. “There’s just really no way to control an infection or disease like this one in the environment that exists within our system.”
Regalado said the Tulsa County jail has yet to have a confirmed COVID-19 case and that he believes the key has been the response plan, which Sheriff’s Office officials were proactive in implementing.
“We did not wait to see if it was going to hit Oklahoma,” he said. “When we got wind of this, we started formalizing a plan.”
In addition to general safety precautions, the plan included the isolation of incoming arrestees in 14-day observation pods, and, more recently, the expansion of COVID-19 testing.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” the sheriff said. “I also think that luck has shined on us.”
He said his hope is that “we won’t have a COVID-19 infection” but that if it happens “we will be able to contain it.”
A possible cause for concern, Regalado said, has been the inability to secure enough hand sanitizer and protective masks.
“We are still awaiting orders that we put in two months ago,” he said.
“It forced us to kind of think outside the box. For hand sanitizers, we ordered the components of them, and then we mixed it ourselves and made our own.”
Steele praised a move by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board that he said could help on the state level.
The board has set a special meeting for Wednesday, he said, to consider expediting the release of prisoners who are medically vulnerable.
“I think it’s a very positive step,” he said.
Video of the town hall has been posted on the Tulsa World website and Facebook page.
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