Here’s what it’s like to be in Utah prisons during the coronavirus pandemic

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun rises over the Utah State Prison in Draper on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018.

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As David sits in a prison cell in Gunnison, he worries about what would happen if COVID-19 spreads within these thick concrete walls.

Like so many others, he’s scared of the coronavirus — and doesn’t believe enough is being done to keep it out of the state prison unit where he lives with 47 other men.

They still stand close together in lines to get their meals every day, despite warnings from state officials that people should stay six feet from one another. The guards aren’t wearing masks or gloves, and he worries these corrections workers could pick up the virus when they go home or when they take on extra shifts at the Draper prison. The only person he’s seen wearing protective gear was his therapist, he told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone call this week.

The inmates aren’t allowed to have hand sanitizer, because it contains alcohol. There is hand soap available — but it’s impossible to force every inmate to wash their hands frequently.

David said inmates have been given a few small cups of bleach every week to keep their living spaces clean, but that happens regardless of whether there’s a pandemic.

“We have no choice in here,” he said. “We have no choice but to be close to each other.”

His sister, like many others whose family members are incarcerated, can’t do much for him. Mella is in California, where people have been ordered to stay home, but she does what she can by emailing the prison medical director to make sure her brother is being cared for.

She’s been reassured that prison officials are taking this seriously and are working to get over-the-counter medications like Tylenol that have been more difficult to find because of a nationwide shortage.

“I’m deeply concerned about my brother’s well-being,” she said this week. “I know how I feel here, and I’m free. I’m in my home. But it’s very concerning where he’s in a place where they aren’t really practicing recommendations.”

David and Mella, like several other Utahns who spoke to The Tribune this week, asked to not be identified by their full names, expressing concern that speaking out could affect their cases or treatment in the facilities.

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Utah prison officials did not respond to an email Friday with specific questions about how they are keeping their two facilities clean. On their website, prison officials say they are being proactive by suspending visitation, posting health signs, trying to limit movement between facilities and providing additional sanitization materials. They’re also identifying areas for isolation and quarantine if anyone is exposed to the virus.

And they’re starting to release some inmates early to make room. Officials said Thursday that they’ve asked the parole board to release 80 inmates who are within 90 days of their scheduled release date and have an approved address, with more releases expected over the next month.

But there are plenty of inmates who won’t be eligible for early release, like Danielle’s father. He was sentenced to prison about a month ago and is expected to serve a lengthy sentence. The Utah woman said she’s especially worried because her father is in a unit at the Draper prison for older inmates, many of whom already have health issues.

She hasn’t been able to visit her father, but they have been in touch over the phone after prison officials gave inmates 10 free 15-minute phone calls each week while visitation is canceled.

Her father has told her that they’ve been given bottles with cleaning solution, but hand sanitizer is banned. He also told her that staff aren’t wearing gloves or masks.

“He’s mostly worried about us,” she said. “They don’t get as good of news access as we do. But he’s worried because his particular unit is a geriatric unit. He’s concerned about how close they are to each other.”

Danielle said her father already has lung and heart disease and that a COVID-19 diagnosis could kill him.

“All of this is new to us,” she said of her father’s incarceration. “To [also] be worried about the virus has been overwhelmingly stressful.”

Zulema, whose husband has been at the Draper prison for seven years, said he has told her that they have been given small hand soaps, but not much else has changed.

“What is going on makes me very fearful,” she said. “They’re in a small, confined space without ventilation, and a lot of the people who are incarcerated have compromised immune systems from using drugs or smoking cigarettes or engaging in high-risk behaviors. It makes them a more vulnerable population.”

And Zulema’s husband has told her prison officials haven’t been transparent as they’ve moved inmates around who may be displaying symptoms.

That’s caused rumors to spread.

Several families told The Tribune that there was a confirmed COVID-19 case in Draper, but prison officials say that’s not true. And David, who is at the Gunnison facility, said several inmates there were supposed to be taken to San Juan County’s jail — but that was canceled because of a possible COVID-19 case.

That wasn’t true either. The San Juan Public Health Department said this week that an inmate in Monticello had symptoms similar to a COVID-19 infection a week prior. Jail staff took immediate measures to quarantine the individual and ordered a test, a health official said. The results came back negative last week.

For David, there’s a glimmer of hope that he could be released from the Gunnison facility soon. He’s a leader in his unit, and his parole hearing is just a few weeks away.

He’s in prison for having a gun when he wasn’t supposed to, because of a past criminal conviction, and is there for a zero-to-five-year sentence ordered last August.

When he goes before the parole board in April, he wants them to let him out if the virus keeps spreading.

“I would hope so,” he said.

Reporter Zak Podmore contributed to this article.