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September 27, 2021

Prison officials push back on criticism over virus outbreak

DRAPER — Utah State Prison officials are pushing back on criticism over their handling of a coronavirus outbreak among nearly 300 inmates, saying they have risen to meet the challenges posed by the surge in confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“It hasn’t been easy, especially under the scrutiny of those on the outside operating off misinformation, misperception, rumor or manipulation,” Jeremy Sharp, director of prison operations, said Thursday during a news conference at the state Capitol. “But I assure you, we have brave caring men and women showing up every day under insurmountable odds, adapting to and overcoming these obstacles with great agility.”

No inmate deaths had been reported as of Thursday.

Sharp and other administrators defended their virus response two days after family members of inmates protested outside their offices, saying their loved ones have reported being denied medical care, cleaning supplies and meals.

“We did a remarkable job of keeping the virus out of the prison, but now it’s here and we’re forced to deal with it, said Tony Washington, the prisons’ clinical services director. “I can assure you that no one is going without care at this time.”

He said the Utah Department of Corrections took care early in the pandemic to isolate the most at-risk inmates. The Draper site, which can house up to 4,300 inmates, has the resources, staff and space to provide more intensive care if needed, he said.

Since April, the department has released roughly 1,000 offenders early in an effort to free up cells, cutting an average of 66 days from their sentences.

The ACLU of Utah, however, says that’s enough.

In April, before the prison confirmed any cases, the organization unsuccessfully sued for greater releases of inmates with health issues or those nearing the end of their sentences. But it said earlier this week that it hasn’t ruled out further legal action.

Authorities traced the outbreak to a medical worker who treated several prisoners late in September. They said Thursday they have contained the spread to two housing blocks within the prison’s Wasatch facility, where a total of 278 men there have the virus.

Four more cases have been identified in a separate women’s facility after new inmates were exposed before arriving, according to the prison.

The outbreak illustrates how spread outside the prison’s walls put inmates, schoolchildren and those in long-term care facilities at higher risk, said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

“It’s really important for us to do what we can as individuals to control the spread in our communities to protect these vulnerable settings where controlling the spread of COVID is very, very difficult,” Dunn said.

She reminded Utahns to wear masks, keep their distance and stay home when sick.

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