As a COVID-19 outbreak spreads at the Utah State Prison, a civil liberties group is pressuring officials to step up release of nonviolent inmates.

By Monday, 278 inmates and 61 prison staff members had tested positive since the first case was confirmed Sept. 3, the Utah Department of Corrections reported.

Kaitlyn Felsted, department spokesperson, said Tuesday the outbreak has been confined to two of four cell blocks in the Wasatch unit of the Draper prison.

“We’re focusing on prevention and containment,” Mike Haddon, the department’s executive director, said in a video briefing Oct. 6.

He said the affected cell blocks are locked down and state and local health agencies are doing accelerated contact tracing and testing.

Almost 2,300 of the prison’s approximately 3,000 inmates have been tested, the department said in its most recent report Monday.

Sara Wolovick, an American Civil Liberties Union of Utah attorney, said Tuesday her group represents families of inmates concerned about how the outbreak is being managed.

“Right now our biggest concern is that people who have tested positive are being housed in the same housing section as those who have tested negative,” Wolovick said.

Haddon said inmates tested negative are kept in place because “there’s a chance they are positive or will be soon.”

Moving them to other units, the Gunnison prison or county jails may spread the disease, he said.

Wolovick urged the department and the Board of Pardons and Parole to intensify consideration of early releases of inmates while the pandemic is in progress.

“We know they have been lowering the population, but there are still far too many people in there,” Wolovick said.

“We hope the prison will start looking into alternatives to incarceration” for those who don’t pose a threat to the public, such as house arrest with ankle monitors.

“At least temporarily for people who are more medically vulnerable,” she said.

The ACLU and prisoners’ relatives staged a protest Tuesday evening urging more action.

Haddon defended what officials have done so far in the seven months of the pandemic.

He said the prison population is at a 17-year low.

“We are moving people out of harm’s way in every way we can,” he said.

Wolovick said the ACLU has heard from family members of some inmates that medication has been delayed for inmates during the outbreak.

“We haven’t had any issues there,” Felsted responded.

“We have medical professionals walking the floors and checking in on inmates,” she said, calling it “an extra level to take care of these guys.”

Mental health counseling is being provided as well because officials recognize the psychological effects that a prolonged lockdown in the units can cause, Felsted said.

Wolovick said her group is urging the state to put more resources forward because of correctional facilities’ vulnerability to large outbreaks due to their inherent lack of social distancing.

“In terms of litigation, it’s still on the table,” she said.

The ACLU earlier this year unsuccessfully petitioned the Utah Supreme Court to order mandatory prison and county jail inmates releases because of the pandemic.

The group also protested on behalf of inmates during a summertime outbreak in the Weber County Jail, where more than 100 inmates tested positive.

Similar problems have swept jails and prisons across the nation this year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 182,000 positive COVID-19 tests have been recorded in jails and prisons nationwide.

The CDC said 1,073 inmates and 58 corrections staff members have died.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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