As state stops intake of prisoners, worries grow in ND jails

State and county correctional facilities have taken strides to protect vulnerable jail populations from a possible COVID-19 outbreak. But living in close quarters with limited access to personal protective equipment, some inmates say they're still left with few options to protect themselves from the virus.

The Grand Forks County Correctional Center, photographed Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Photo by Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

Donald Splonick was booked into the Grand Forks County Correctional Center on his 70th birthday – Sept. 6, 2019.

Splonick, accused of illegally crossing the Canadian border into North Dakota, has been in the local jail ever since, awaiting a trial in federal court scheduled for May. On March 11, six months into his time in GFCCC, the North Dakota Department of Health reported the state's first positive case of COVID-19, a disease caused by the coronavirus.

As most of the nation's population has donned masks and conducted social distancing, Splonick says those practices are nearly impossible in jail, and inmates are left with few options to protect themselves from the virus. Meanwhile, some say the problem is exacerbated by the state prison system's decision to close its doors to new prisoners, and further complicated by the state's still-limited capacity for mass testing of vulnerable populations.

"There's nothing more to do," Splonick said. "We watch the evening news as much as we can. It's quite interesting, and it kind of scares everybody."

GFCCC administrator Bret Burkholder has previously told the Herald that he is acutely aware of the fact that jail populations are at particularly high risk for a COVID-19 outbreak. He said that if someone became infected with COVID-19 in GFCCC, he was afraid the jail would become a tinderbox.


As of April 28, two GFCCC inmates and one staff member have tested negative for COVID-19. Aside from new intakes who are put on a standard 72-hour hold to be monitored, no inmates have yet had to be isolated, Burkholder has said. As of April 30, the Cass County Jail is the only jail in North Dakota that has reported any positive cases of COVID-19. Elsewhere, jails and prisons that have experienced outbreaks have become some of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S., including Cook County Jail in Chicago and Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio.

Though other businesses and long-term care facilities in Grand Forks have been offered the option to conduct mass testing, Burkholder said he is not aware of any plans to conduct mass tests in the jail. Residents of North Dakota correctional facilities are recognized in the governor's COVID-19 Vulnerable Population Protection Plan, but North Dakota Joint Information Center spokesperson Jennifer Skjod said there is not yet a timeline to test the incarcerated.

"The time frame all depends on our testing capacity as a state and the timing of our test kit supply," Skjod said via email. "We won't start on corrections until after the long-term care facilities have all been tested."

Burkholder told the Herald via email that GFCCC has taken steps since March to protect the population from an outbreak, including more frequent disinfecting of surfaces, distributing personal protective gear to all staff members and instituting the mandatory 72-hour hold for all new inmates. After their hold, those inmates are then issued masks and housed with others who have been in the jail less than than two weeks before being moved to the general population. This week, the jail also began utilizing disposable meal trays for inmates in isolation and received approval from DOCR to issue more uniforms so laundry only needs to be done once a week instead of twice.

But for inmates who have been in the jail since before the pandemic, little in their routine has changed, said Bobbi Yanez, another person incarcerated in GFCCC. She said the biggest change she's noticed is signage in units reminding inmates to wash hands frequently and not to share items like utensils.

"Basically, they haven't given us anything for the coronavirus," said Yanez, 47.

Tasha Rasmussen, who is incarcerated in the same unit as Yanez, has seen firsthand what happens when a virus is introduced to a jail population.

"When you're in here and a cold or flu does break out, you're in such close quarters with everybody generally, it affects the whole unit," said Rasmussen, 40. "Or when someone comes in off the street with bronchitis. I mean, we breathe the same air. It goes around like wildfire. ... I can't even imagine how they're going to prevent that."


According to Burkholder, the answer is to quickly address jail overpopulation. He has told the Herald that the more people there are in the facility, the more difficult it would be to address an outbreak.

The Northeast Central Judicial District, which encompasses Grand Forks, updated its bond schedule last month to release low-level inmates for that reason. On April 28, the jail population was 130, with an additional 11 on electronic home monitoring. One month ago, on March 28, the population was 165, with 14 on electronic home monitoring.

Splonick, Yanez and Rasmussen likely will not be released due to the pandemic. Splonick is technically in federal custody. Yanez and Rasmussen are also not technically in the custody of GFCCC, since they were both convicted and sentenced last March to serve time in the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Bismarck. Under normal circumstances, Yanez and Rasmussen would have been transported to the state penitentiary following their sentencing hearings; but in an attempt to protect its own population from a COVID-19 outbreak, DOCR closed its doors to all new intakes on March 13.

The suspension of new intakes was initially planned to last 10 days while DOCR ironed out new screening, intake and isolation processes. On April 28, however, the state prison still had not reopened. Lance Anderson, DOCR Deputy Director of Facility Inspections, declined to comment on whether DOCR has plans in place to reopen soon.

"We took a very aggressive stance in the beginning to limit our populations," Anderson said. "I think probably our number one standout from the rest of the country is really limiting those populations, which is a tough thing to do. But it's so important for public safety."

Northeast Central Judicial District presiding judge Donald Hager said that his understanding of DOCR's suspension of new intakes is that they believe it would be irresponsible to take people out of low-density county facilities and transport them to the larger population in the state prison. Hager said he disagrees with that approach.

"Our position would be that they could test them and if they were COVID-free, they should have been able to transfer them," Hager said. "Now, those numbers are building up."

Unable to be released from jail during the pandemic, Rasmussen said she would rather be in the state prison than GFCCC. While GFCCC is designed for short-term stays as people await trials, DOCR is designed for long-term stays, and Rasmussen feels they are better-equipped to handle the medical needs of their residents, COVID-related or not.


Dr. Jamie Roed, an Altru Health System family medicine doctor who oversees healthcare in GFCCC, declined to speak to the Herald regarding this report.

In an April 20 press briefing, Gov. Doug Burgum praised DOCR for its quick action and execution of its COVID-19 response. As of April 28, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within DOCR. In the meantime, however, about 100 inmates sentenced to state prison reside in North Dakota's county jails due to COVID-19, Anderson said. The highest concentration of state-sentenced inmates are in Cass County, Grand Forks County, Burleigh County and Ward County.

Without knowing when she might be taken to DOCR, and with her own health largely out of her control, Rasmussen said all there is to do is wait.

"We just cross our fingers and hope we don't get subjected to it," she said. "The DOCR needs to make a decision, because we're just sitting here in limbo."

After months awaiting trial, and two months of watching the nightly news and reading the morning paper for updates about COVID-19, Splonick said he grew tired of being stuck. On Tuesday, April 28, he requested the court set a date for a plea hearing. His hope is that after he's sentenced, the judge will send him to San Diego or Minneapolis to address his immigration status, but now, even Canada would be better than a jail.

"Being in this place for this long, it's driving me crazy," he said. "And you see it with the elderly people, and you see it on TV – if something's going to go wrong, I want to be at home."

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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