BERLIN — While news that a former staffer at the federal prison tested positive for COVID-19 turned out to be overstated, state and federal officials are taking steps to protect the 1,400 inmates and approximately 400 staffers in the state and federal prisons in Berlin.
A COVID-19 outbreak inside the prisons would threaten not only inmates and staff, but the local community as well.
Much of the Androscoggin Valley was fearful last week when a spokesperson from the Bureau of Prisons' Washington, D.C. office on Wednesday said two Bureau of Prisons staffers had tested positive, including a staffer in Berlin and one at an administrative facility in Texas.
The story received national media attention, upsetting Berlin officials who questioned why local health officials were not notified.
In fact, Federal Correctional Institution — Berlin Warden Robert Hazelwood said the person, whose name was not released, was never tested for the COVID-19 and had transferred out of Berlin on March 6 to a Bureau of Prisons facility in Colorado.
Ten days later, on March 16, the former staffer had flu-like symptoms and was directed to self-quarantine for two weeks. No tests for COVID-19 were performed.
Berlin prison officials were notified on Tuesday, March 17, and all staff members and inmates who came in close contact with the employee are being screen for COVID-19. Currently all are symptom free.
Hazlewood said the Berlin federal prison has a pandemic flu plan in place to manage any cases of COVID-19 to ensure the local community remains safe. There are 730 inmates in the medium security prison and 235 staffers.
The federal Bureau of Prisons overall has suspended visits to inmates, inmate transfers, staff training and travel, and volunteer visits.
All newly-arriving inmates are being screened for COVID-19 exposure and those with exposure risk are quarantined. Inmates showing symptoms are isolated and tested. The prison is also taking steps to maximize social distance and limit group gathering.
So far, the Bureau of Prisons said no inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
More information about the prison system’s COVID-19 plan is available at bop.gov/coronavirus/index.jsp.
The state Department of Corrections has also suspended all visits to inmates as well as volunteers from coming into the prison. Transfers between facilities are limited. Screening of all staff and vendors coming into the prison has been expanded and includes a temperature check.
“Safety is our No. 1 goal,” said Public Information Officer Laura Montenegro. She said prison officials are attempting to keep the schedule as normal as possible while making sure inmates and staff are safe.
Understanding that visits are important to both families and the inmates, she said the department is allowing each inmate two free 5-minute phone calls per week and is also testing some video conferencing. Montenegro said this can be a trying time for families and inmates, and clinicians will be going to every unit to answer questions.
There are 615 inmates in the Berlin state prison.
For information about the state Department of Corrections COVID-19 response, go to nh.gov/nhdoc/news/.
In a recent editorial, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire Executive Director Devon Chaffee and the N.H. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Robin Melone said the state has a disproportionately elderly prison population compared to other states and urged the state to look at ways to reduce the incarceration of vulnerable people.
“An outbreak of COVID-19 inside our jails or prisons would threaten inmates, staff and our communities at large,” the editorial said.
The pair said they are asking that immediate steps be taken to prevent people from unnecessarily entering the legal system and to ensure that jails and prisons do not needlessly keep people incarcerated, especially those most vulnerable to COVID-19. They stressed the measures are being recommended on an interim basis to response to COVID-19.