Article by Aric Asplund, President of International EnviroGuard

The brave men and women who work with hardened criminals in the nation’s prison system take risks every time they punch a time clock. But the spread of COVID-19 puts them in the eye of the pandemic’s storm due to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and tight spaces where the deadly virus can be easily transmitted. Health-safety protocols, stress management techniques, and personal protective equipment are defenses against this invisible enemy.

While health agencies and correctional administrators are quickly implementing policies and protocols to protect correctional officers, too many have already been infected, and some have lost their lives. In New York, an 18-year Department of Corrections veteran at Rikers Island reportedly died from COVID-19 on March 27. A New York DOC investigator also died from the virus in early March. New York City has become ground zero for the worst outbreak, but other correctional facilities and officers across the country have not been spared.

In Washington, D.C., a correctional officer for the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services lost his life to the contagion. In Rhode Island, at least two correctional officers tested positive and upwards of a dozen in Miami-Dade, Florida. In Michigan, more than 50 prison staff members tested positive following the death of an inmate. Unlike the violent offenders correctional officers are tasked with keeping safely behind bars, the coronavirus cannot be contained. Front lines prison professionals must employ heightened health and safety vigilance to complete their shifts.

What Are Prison Officials Doing To Combat COVID-19?

It may seem counterintuitive, but U.S. Attorney William Barr and others in the justice system are surgically reducing prison populations by releasing vulnerable inmates. The policy has two crucial health and safety components that have governors and judges considering it a viable option. First, vulnerable inmates generally pose a low risk to communities due to advanced age or physical disabilities. Second, overcrowded facilities make the spread impossible to control.

“Inmates and their families, correctional officers, attorneys, journalists, and other stakeholders have been asking the department about the impact of coronavirus on the state prison system and its nearly 22,000 inmates for weeks,” AL.com reports. “Epidemiologists, professors, and other experts have been ringing alarm bells about the need for Alabama and other states with overcrowded prisons to take swift, decisive action to keep coronavirus from spreading behind bars and killing large numbers of prisoners.”

Some experts estimate that Alabama’s prisons exceed 170-percent capacity. Such overcrowding makes them a veritable COVID-19 petri dish. U.S. Attorney William Bar, and California Gov. Gavin Newsome, among others, have already released inmates for health and safety reasons. But that won’t alleviate the stress and anxiety prison personnel face when the doors close behind them at the start of each shift.

Ways Correctional Professionals Can Cope with COVID-19 Stress

At work, correctional officers often adopt a firm and emotionless demeanor in order to manage sometimes erratic inmates. But outside the walls, it’s imperative to purge pent up personal stress and anxiety exacerbated by the health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued guidelines that may prove helpful for front lines law enforcement officers such as correctional officers. These are telltale signs that COVID-19 stress may require health management, according to the CDC.

  • You experience fear or worry about health
  • Eating patterns have changed since the outbreak
  • Uneven sleep patterns or difficulty concentrating
  • Chronic health problems flare-up
  • Experience fatigue, fear, or withdrawal
  • Alcohol, tobacco, or drugs use increases

Widespread news reports about the pandemic and knowledge that correctional facilities may be hot spots take a heavy toll. The CDC recommends the following mental health tips to reduce secondary traumatic stress (STS).

  • Acknowledge that STS can impact anyone
  • Avoid binge-watching COVID-19 news or social media coverage
  • Exercise outdoors by walking jogging, bicycling, or hiking, whenever safely possible
  • Spend off-duty time with family, doing hobbies, or reading
  • If stress and anxiety persist or spike, call a professional

While mental health self-care remains a critical facet to navigating these troubled times, personal protective equipment and health-safety policies are necessary to protect the body.

COVID-19 Best Practices & Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The CDC issued guidance specifically for professionals working in correctional facilities that outlines best practices for mitigating the spread and the use of PPE. Confined spaces, by their very nature, present a substantial challenge. This tends to be particularly true when visitors, newly incarcerated persons, and prison employees enter and exit the facility.

Although the hard data on COVID-19 continues to grow, researchers indicate that upwards of 50 percent of the population may be infected and show no symptoms. Others may not become ill for more than two weeks while contagious. That means correctional officers remain at imminent risk within the facility. The CDC recommends the following.

  • Maintain adequate levels of healthcare professionals
  • Practice social distancing whenever safely possible
  • Provide remote work options for those not essential to daily facility operations
  • Implement enhanced disinfecting and deep cleansing
  • Ensure top-tier hygiene is practiced
  • Wash hands for 20 seconds under hot water
  • Utilize hand sanitizers with 60 percent alcohol or higher
  • Practice social distancing guidelines during visitations
  • Perform health checklists on incoming inmates
  • Medically isolate suspected COVID-19 cases
  • Quarantine any confirmed infected person

One of the critical resources that hamstrings responders and law enforcement officials is the shortage of ventilating masks. Corrections resource American Jail addressed this issue by publishing a Washington State guidance.

“Because, in jails, custody staff working with persons with possible COVID-19 infection share many of the same tasks and exposures as health care workers in the community, it would make sense for custody staff to use the same personal protection as jail medical staff who are working in close proximity of patients,” according to the American Jail post. “For the moment, this recommendation is to use N-95 masks. In case you have trouble getting N-95 masks, you can use any mask with an N, P, or R letter designation and a 95 or 100 number designation. And if none of these masks is available, use simple surgical masks.”

While vigilant best practices can help slow the spread, correctional officers must have access to all levels of necessary PPE. The CDC recommends “facemasks, N95 respirators, eye protection, disposable medical gloves, and disposable gowns/one-piece coveralls,” among other protective equipment.

Although correctional facilities have struggled to stock and replenish PPE, companies such as International EnviroGuard continue to fill orders for disposable protective equipment such as CDC-recommended gowns, coveralls, and other health-safety products as quickly as possible.