MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — As Montana’s COVID-19 case count continues festering, state prison officials say they are taking measures to stop the coronavirus from turning prisons into incubation pods, while a coalition of Montana groups has called for the governor to begin exercising clemency for high-risk inmates.

A spokeswoman with the Montana Department of Corrections said Wednesday just one inmate had been tested for COVID-19, and the result was negative. Visitation at state corrections facilities has been suspended since March 13, the same day Montana’s first positive coronavirus tests were announced.

On Thursday, Gov. Steve Bullock issued an order for Montanans to stay at home starting Saturday, a sort of lockdown outside the prison system; the measure allows for essential travel, such as to buy food, provide care to others, or recreate on public lands if following social distancing rules.

Spokeswoman Carolynn Bright said the Department of Corrections had begun limiting the movement of inmates as much as possible — within DOC facilities, throughout the state and from state to state.

Bright said in February, the state DOC received four prisoners, from California, New Mexico and Ohio. So far this month the DOC has received another eight from Alaska, California, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Washington, Bright said, although these inmates were coming to Montana facilities anyway, she added.

During the pandemic, the state corrections department has asked counties to keep inmates who would have been transferred to state prisons at local detention centers to limit movement between facilities, Bright said. Local officials, however, are also being asked to release as many people as they can to protect vulnerable inmates from a potential outbreak in county jails.

“Most of our partners have been agreeable to (retaining inmates longer), and we appreciate their cooperation at this trying time,” Bright said in an email. “However, should a facility decline to hold an offender — and the choice becomes retrieving the inmate or having him or her released to the public — the DOC and the governor’s office agree that serious violent felons and sex offenders should not be released for public safety reasons.”

Bright said the DOC has not released anyone because a county has been unwilling to hold the inmate.

The Montana State Prison outside Deer Lodge houses approximately 1,600 male inmates, while roughly 640 people are employed at the facility, according to the DOC website. Those 2,200 people coexist each day at a 68-acre compound. In Billings, the state women’s prison is a 194-bed facility, although its website states it consistently operates at or over capacity with closer to 200 inmates. More yet are held at the Crossroads Correctional Center near Shelby.

The ACLU of Montana has been calling for action from Bullock and the Corrections Department for two weeks now. The day before Montana’s first batch of cases was announced, the ACLU of Montana issued a letter to state officials asking for information on a plan to address the risk of COVID-19 spreading through prisons and jails. More letters have followed, cosigned by organizations like the Montana Human Rights Network, Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Montana Innocence Project and others, calling specifically on Bullock to use his executive power of clemency to get vulnerable individuals out of prison amid the pandemic.

“The concern is that across the country we’ve seen as soon as the COVID virus pops up in prisons, it spreads like wildfire,” said SK Rossi, director of advocacy and policy at ACLU of Montana. “It’s because of the nature of those facilities, you can’t get away from each other, there’s no airtight barrier between people who are and aren’t infected.”

Earlier this week, Bullock told Lee Newspapers of Montana he had been meeting with DOC officials, but had not made any decisions yet.

Bright said Wednesday everyone who comes into DOC facilities is being screened. Employees’ temperatures are checked and other self-reporting methods are taken at the beginning of every shift, while all new inmates are screened before entry to the facility. Those coming from out of state are quarantined for 14 days. Officials are also taking measures to promote social distancing, such as staggering meal times so fewer people are in one space at once, Bright said. Employees and inmates also have access to personal hygiene products, while additional shifts have been added to clean and disinfect facilities, Bright said.

“Ensuring our staff and inmates are educated about what COVID-19 is and how to prevent it is key to the DOC’s work to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in our facilities,” Bright said.

Still, unrest in prisons and detention facilities have been boiling over around the country. Last week, inmates sued the Washington state Department of Corrections with claims that cleaning at facilities is “woefully inadequate” and threatens any efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Washington Post this week obtained video from inside an Alabama county jail, where two inmates threatened to commit suicide if newly arrived inmates they feared had been exposed to the virus were not removed from the pod.

Annette Carter, chair of the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, said the board is continuing to conduct all hearings as scheduled, with no delays caused by the coronavirus outbreak. By Friday morning, Carter said she would be reviewing cases, particularly those with potential medical issues, to fast-track the process.

“We will be looking at nonviolent offenses, as well as people that are going to be discharging between now and the end of year,” Carter said. “We’re looking at those cases, but they’ve got to have good release plans and with program completion already.”

Carter stressed the board will handle the process with a great deal of deliberation to ensure community supervision offices won’t be overwhelmed.

“We’re looking for people who are ready for release,” Carter said. “Community safety is always first and foremost in our mind.”

Rossi said Thursday that any measure by the state Department of Corrections is welcomed, but not enough.

“It absolutely needs to go a step further, it needs to go further than the Department of Corrections,” Rossi said. “They’re doing what they can with the authority they have, but testing guards and cutting off visitation isn’t enough. They have to start releasing people. The governor can do that very quickly.”

Local authorities have taken steps toward reducing jail populations to stem the spread of COVID-19, even before Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath issued a memo on March 20 asking city and county judges to do so. Lake County saw about a quarter of its jail population released, said Sheriff Don Bell. The Lake County Detention Center has 42 beds but generally houses 42 to 45 inmates, while Bell said another seven to 10 are typically held in Flathead County. Bell said district judges have granted the release of about 10 people from custody since the coronavirus pandemic got underway.

“It lightens the load,” he said. “It helps, but we’ve got several (detention officers) who are sick.”

Four of the sheriff’s detention officers are out sick right now, Bell said, although none are showing signs of COVID-19. That leaves two on duty, Bell said.

At the Office of the State Public Defender, the message from top officials is to work to release vulnerable clients from jails, said division administrator Peter Ohman.

“We’ve been sharing national resources we’ve received from public defender offices around the country with our people on the ground so they can fashion motions to get clients out who may be high-risk and are non-violent,” Ohman said. Those national resources include backing from the American Diabetes Association, he added. “We have a lot of clients who are diabetic and that’s one of the risk factors.”

So far, the route toward releases has been a patchwork across the state. Ohman said prosecutors and defense attorneys in some jurisdictions are agreeing to lists of inmates who can be released, while others are moving down the line on a case-by-case basis.

“Other situations, where the courts haven’t taken the lead, we should look at the Supreme Court’s directive so we can reduce the risk to public health,” Ohman said. “Once infections, unfortunately, become more prevalent, it’s going to be more of a safety issue.”

More From KBUL NEWS TALK 970 AM & 103.3 FM