Family members protest after 278 prisoners test positive for coronavirus at Utah prison

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Beth Thompson speaks at a rally for prison inmates, after a COVID-19 outbreak has spread at the Draper prison, at the Department of Corrections, on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

Draper • Keenan Thompson has earned an associate degree in theology and become an ordained minister, while an inmate at the Utah State Prison.

“He’s done what he needed to do to be rehabilitated," his wife, Beth Thompson, said.

But Keenan also has an autoimmune disease and contracting the coronavirus — which has spread to hundreds of inmates at the Draper facility in recent weeks — could be a death sentence.

“No matter the mistakes they have made on this Earth, our loved one matters to us," said Beth Thompson, one of several family members who gathered outside the Utah Department of Corrections headquarters on Tuesday calling for improved safety measures for their incarcerated husbands, fathers and sons.

They carried signs that said “Every Inmate has Rights” and “Keep Prisoners Safe During COVID-19." They cried in frustration and fear. Several relatives who spoke did not want to use their names or the names for their incarcerated family members for fear of retaliation from prison officials.

As of Monday, 278 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. Of those, 264 are considered “active.”

The number of cases exploded last week, after the virus spread between Wasatch A and B blocks on the campus. Prison officials say those who have tested positive have either been “asymptomatic or exhibiting minor symptoms.”

Officials have said they believe the coronavirus was introduced by a medic who treated several inmates.

Mike Haddon, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, said in an Oct. 5 video that the coronavirus spreads easily in prisons because people live so closely together, without much flexibility in separating them.

“We’re grateful that it took until October before we ended up with an outbreak within our prison,” he said.

Haddon said prison staff is wearing full protective gear, including gowns, masks and gloves to try to prevent the spread to other facilities. He said all inmates have also been given masks to wear to slow or prevent the spread.

Carrie Knowlton believes her husband, Michael Knowlton — an inmate who tested positive — is not getting adequate medical attention.

“He’s not getting help because no one cares,” she said. "The inmates are all just numbers.”

Knowlton said inmate meals are delivered to their cells in styrofoam containers for safety. “But the styrofoam is piling up and it’s dirty," she said, “because inmates are the ones that clean and the prison is on lockdown."

The lack of proper care is “beyond frustrating," Knowlton told those gathered.

“Who is helping our loved ones?” she asked.

Kate Kalt believes that even before the pandemic, inmate health care was not a priority. Kalt said her husband got a staph infection on his foot and the sores were “oozing for three weeks" before he was allowed to see a doctor.

“No one should have to fight for a Band-aid,” she said. “The whole system needs major reform.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sued over the prison’s coronavirus response back in April, but the Utah Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit, saying the group didn’t have proper legal standing to bring it to court.

Sara Wolovick, an ACLU Equal Justice Works fellow, said Tuesday they haven’t ruled out more litigation.

“This is the situation that we were afraid of and wanted to avoid,” she said. “That is why we filed our lawsuit in April before the prison had an outbreak. It’s very difficult to deal with once it’s actually in the facility.”

Wolovick said the ACLU of Utah remains concerned that not enough is being done to protect inmates that may be in a section where the virus is spreading, but who have not yet tested positive for COVID-19. They believe the prison is taking steps to prevent spread, she said, but thinks they could be doing more to keep infected inmates away from those who have not been infected. They also want the parole board to speed up its process of releasing inmates early, and get the extra funding to do so, if needed.

Prison officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Utah State Prison’s coronavirus outbreak is the largest one to date in a Utah lock-up facility. Other jails in Weber and Washington counties had around 100 cases in July, and other smaller outbreaks have been recorded in other jails, like Salt Lake County.