Reacting to an announcement this week that one-third of Sussex Correctional Institution (SCI) inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware issued a statement calling for the release of inmates who were within six months of the end of their sentences and the most vulnerable, when it presented no public risk.

Freeing inmates, Mike Brickner, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, stated in the news release, would ease crowding and ensure CDC guidelines are observed.

But Claire DeMatteis, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, told the Coastal Point this week the ACLU “irresponsibly and haphazardly wants to let convicted felons on the street with no place to live and no medical care.”

When that has been done in other states, many inmates have committed crimes and been taken back to jail, she said.

“I don’t have the authority under Delaware law to release inmates early. It is just a way to promote their agenda. It’s not possible to just release inmates early in Delaware,” she said, explaining that there is a process for release that involves the Board of Parole, Attorney General’s Office, victims and a judge.

“The governor doesn’t have that authority, and I, as commissioner, don’t have that authority,” she said.

“People who want to release inmates early are just using COVID as an excuse. Our prisons are not overcrowded,” she said.

“You have to understand, the DOC is in the healthcare business, whether it’s COVID, hepatitis A or hepatitis C . Any DOC is in the healthcare business. It is part of our job every single day, COVID or not, to provide medical care to inmates. That is exactly what we are doing with this infectious disease, just as we do every year.

“You don’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘Just release inmates,’” DeMatteis said.

She said every space is being used to keep inmates at safe distances from each other, and that inmates who tested negative are also in a safe environment.

The outbreak in the Sussex County facility can be traced to inmates living in dormitory-style, open-bunk housing units, she said.

Early this week, DeMatteis had issued a news release stating that, two weeks after testing identified a cluster of inmates with the coronavirus at SCI, all 973 inmates had been tested. One-third, or 303, tested positive for COVID-19, and two-thirds, or 650, tested negative.

Another 20 test results remained pending.

Additionally, 17 inmates at Morris Community Corrections Center in Dover tested positive.

The cases at Morris originated with the transfer of three SCI inmates who had completed their Level V sentence and were transferred to complete their Level IV term, according to the news release.

Of the 320 inmates who tested positive, 90 percent, or 288, were asymptomatic, and 10 percent, or 32, had symptoms.

Four of them were hospitalized, and none were on a ventilator.

At SCI, 21 officers tested positive, and another 18 were also self-quarantining while awaiting test results.

The DOC offered voluntary testing for all SCI officers.

Brickner, in the ACLU news release, asked the DOC to make testing universally available to everyone incarcerated or working in every facility and provide personal protective equipment.

Brickner stated that the number of positive cases at the jail are not surprising, since the ACLU has been asking the Department of Corrections to increase safety measures.

“When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., public health experts warned that jails and prisons needed to take precautions to ensure that lives were not endangered. We echoed those calls here in Delaware, and they were repeatedly unanswered,” Brickner stated.

“DOC must immediately make testing and PPE universally available to everyone in its facilities. While DOC has done so for people in the facilities experiencing an outbreak, they must take immediate action to track and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in other facilities. What we are witnessing in the Sussex facilities is a direct result of past inaction,” Brickner stated.

Miller, chief of communications and community relations for the DOC, corrected what he called errors in the ACLU’s news release, saying that protective face masks are already in use; that the DOC led the effort in Delaware to initiate contact tracing and has been “employing that practice every time a COVID-19 case has been identified among staff and inmates within our correctional system”; that 320 inmates tested positive, not 337; and that since March, the DOC has administered 1,200 tests to inmates, with well over half being asymptomatic.

Miller said the DOC partnered with the Delaware Division of Public Health to bring rapid testing SCI and testing “allows us to obtain results within 30 minutes.”

Inmate cases have been limited to 15 of 173 housing areas across all correctional facilities, he said.

Everyone who enters prisons, work-release and violation-of-probation centers is being tested, as well as probation and parole offices. There are daily temperature checks, pulse oxygen monitoring and inmate screenings in many facilities. If symptoms are present, the inmate is isolated, Miller said.

Cleaning is being done twice daily, including sanitizing workspaces, disinfecting hard surfaces, providing inmates with cleaning supplies and using fogging machines to disinfect entire rooms, he said.

In-person visitation in Georgetown and Dover was suspended and programming temporarily suspended, although inmates still have recreation time.

Staff members with symptoms are sent home to self-quarantine, and new inmates are held in isolation for 14 days.

Brickner, in the news release, stated that the number of asymptomatic cases “clearly points to the critical need for immediate increased safety measures in all of DOC’s facilities.”

“If that many people are asymptomatic in one facility, it begs the question how many people are asymptomatic and spreading the virus in other facilities? This is a question that we simply can’t answer without universally-available testing,” Brickner stated.

DeMatteis said the DOC has “isolated the inmates with the illness in our COVID-19 Treatment Centers, where they are receiving round-the-clock monitoring and care by medical professionals.

“We are taking extraordinary measures to protect and treat our inmates and staff, and reduce the risk of new infections, including unprecedented relocation of inmates to different housing units at SCI and extensive specialized decontamination cleanings to contain further spread of the virus,” she said.

Staff Reporter

Veteran news reporter Susan Canfora has written for many newspapers and held positions ranging from managing editor to her favorite, news reporter. She joined the Coastal Point in June 2019. She teaches college writing, tutors and professionally edits.