Outside the gates at Crossroads Correctional Center, a for-profit private prison in Toole County, the coronavirus outbreak has been especially pronounced, accounting for half of the state's nine COVID-19-related deaths.
The prison, operated by CoreCivic, has not seen a positive case yet, according to a company spokesman. It is one of the largest employers in the region, with more than 170 employees from the town of Shelby and the adjacent counties, a region known as the Golden Triangle for its strong wheat production.
Until recently, CoreCivic required inmates to sign a waiver in order to receive a face mask, which held the company harmless of any claims related to the masks. Ryan Gustin, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, said this week the company did away with the waiver on April 10.
"It was not the intent of the previous form to require inmates and detainees to relinquish all rights related to COVID-19," Gustin said in an email. "The use of the original form has been discontinued since Friday afternoon (April 10). Inmates and detainees are only required to initial documentation evidencing they were issued a mask."
Gustin was not able to cite the exact number of face masks available on Friday, but said all employees and inmates will receive masks, and added the prison has the resources to replenish supplies as necessary. The prison's bed capacity is 664.
The Montana Department of Corrections said Friday its inmate workers have been producing masks for inmates, who total about 1,800 between the Montana State Prison and State Women's Prison.
“As soon as we received the patterns for masks, gowns and other utility PPE, and got the proper fabric in stock, our inmate workers were able to shift gears from sewing prison clothing to sewing and assembling PPE,” said Montana Correctional Enterprises Administrator Gayle Butler in a press release. “Over the past couple of weeks, they have produced about 5,300 cloth masks, 1,400 face shields, 350 shoe covers, 350 head covers, 400 gowns, 300 mask covers, and more.”
Additionally, Butler said a 3-D printer acquired by the DOC in March was put to work last week to produce N95 masks, with 35 produced by Friday.
Providing masks to inmates goes beyond what was instructed of correctional facilities in Gov. Steve Bullock's April 1 directive to prevent prisons from becoming incubation pods. The directive limited inmate movement among facilities and expedited the parole board process for those at high risk for the illness. Department of Corrections Director Reginald Michael said in Friday's press release no inmates or staff have tested positive for the coronavirus. The DOC and CoreCivic had implemented federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines ahead of the governor's directive to prevent internal spread. Visitation at these facilities was suspended weeks earlier, about the time Montana saw its first positive coronavirus case.
Twenty-nine COVID-19 cases and four related deaths have struck Toole County, a Hi-Line jurisdiction of about 4,800 people. Compare that to Missoula County, population 119,000, where 34 people have tested positive for the virus and one has died. The Toole County cluster has been largely attributed to the Marias Medical Center and its assisted living center.
The Crossroads Correctional Center employs roughly 175 people, according to a 2015 report to the state Legislature by CoreCivic, then called Corrections Corporation of America. A survey of former inmates of the Shelby prison found that health care was one of the four biggest concerns, according to the 2016 performance audit by the Legislative Audit Committee. Additionally, the 2015 CoreCivic report noted approximately $160,500 was spent annually for health care services at Marias Medical Center, now the epicenter of the local COVID-19 outbreak.
Asked this week if CoreCivic will have to provide more health services to its inmates in light of the outbreak at Shelby's hospital, Gustin said CoreCivic has beefed up its hiring for many positions, including nurses, at all 73 locations across the United States. Indeed.com on Friday listed eight open nursing positions at the Shelby prison, although Gustin said there are fewer vacant nursing positions than the recruitment site reflects.
Doreen Mckelvey, executive director of the Shelby Chamber of Commerce, said Friday the prison remains one of the largest employers in Shelby and the region. Mckelvey said local officials have so far trusted the prison to take the necessary precautions to prevent someone from tracking the virus in or taking it to the next county over.
"I know they're taking precautions," Mckelvey said in a phone interview. "It is an isolated population. The only concern would be the people who work up there."
In town, Mckelvey said there are "two schools of thought" about what to do at this point when people she knew at the assisted living center have died, but the rhetoric to reopen the economy has been steadily growing.
"Some people are ready to get things going, but other people are just still extremely cautious," she said. "I know the businesses are suffering. It is a sad time but we're all in this together and hopefully things will be OK."
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