The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported that three inmates tested positive for COVID-19 in the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck on Monday, May 18. The positive tests are a result of mass testing of state correctional facilities, which are slated to be completed by the end of the month. One staff member tested positive at the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown on April 29, and three state penitentiary staff members have tested positive, including one staff member who tested positive as part of the mass test last week and two staff members who previously tested positive in March have since returned to work, DOCR spokesperson Kayli Richards told the Herald Tuesday morning.
No other inmates have yet tested positive in the other three facilities being tracked by DOCR: the James River Correctional Center, the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck, and the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center in Mandan. Testing data has not been published for the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England because it is a contracted facility, Richards said, though Dr. John Hagan, who oversees health care and COVID-19 testing for DOCR, said the women's prison will be included in the mass testing.
Richards said the exact number of people who are expected to be tested in the state prison system is unknown, as she expects some staff and residents will decline. On May 19, DOCR reported a total of 1,434 prisoners residing in state correctional facilities, including 1,292 men and 142 women. DOCR also employs about 1,000 people within the correctional centers, for an approximate total of 2,400 tests expected to be administered by June 1, according to Richards.
It is unclear when targeted testing will begin at county-level correctional facilities. Residents of North Dakota's jails and prisons have been recognized by Gov. Doug Burgum as at a particularly high risk for contracting COVID-19 and are included in his Vulnerable Population Protection Plan, which also includes residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. A spokesperson from the North Dakota Joint Information Center said on April 29 that, while the state intends to conduct mass testing in all correctional centers, a date had not been set for targeted testing in county correctional facilities. In addition, the testing likely would not be conducted until after all nursing home and other long-term care facility residents in the state had been tested.
Last week, JIC referred questions about county-level testing to DOCR, but Hagan said testing in county facilities will not be in their purview, and he is unaware of when county-level testing will begin.
JIC has confirmed four positive cases of COVID-19 in the Cass County Jail, and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians reported one positive case in the jail in Belcourt on Friday, May 15. The Herald sent a request to JIC for the full list of positive COVID-19 cases in county correctional facilities, which a JIC spokesperson said was forwarded to DOCR. DOCR responded on Tuesday that they do not track that data, and the best way to obtain that information would be to contact each jail individually.
There have yet to be any positive cases in the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. GFCCC administrator Bret Burkholder said he has also yet to hear of any plans for targeted testing of the jail's population. Even when targeted testing does come, Burkholder worried how effective a single point-in-time test could be in a facility that could receive 30 to 50 new residents a week.
It also remains unclear whether DOCR will resume its intake process for new inmates after completion of testing. State correctional facilities closed their doors to new intakes on March 13 to slow the spread of COVID-19 within its population, leaving more than 100 state-sentenced inmates in county correctional facilities across the state.
"I know that (DOCR Director Leann Bertsch) is still working closely with the governor's office and all our directors and everything and trying to figure out the most appropriate and safe time that we'll be able to do that," Richards said. "I know (DOCR Deputy Director of Facility Inspections Lance Anderson) is also working with the sheriffs ... so there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that they're just trying to ensure the safety of everybody, not just the jails, but our facilities as well, too."