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Responding to an Outbreak

It was about 10 pm one night in April when Angela D. Sutton heard the first of her staff had tested positive for COVID-19. The executive director of the Indiana Department of Corrections/ Division of Youth Services (DYS) had to contact everyone who had been within six feet of the staff member for at least five to ten minutes. About 20 individuals needed to know before they reported to work the next morning. She made the calls with help from her team. They reached the staff, inquired about symptoms, expressed concerns, shared the facts and let them know they could stay home if they felt they needed to.

“Most of the staff showed up,” Sutton said. “We’re pretty blessed people haven’t taken advantage of the fact they can stay home. They’ve been very supportive and have hung in there.”

Sutton had been in the executive director’s seat only since January 2020.

In her largest facility, Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility (PNJ), 27 youths and 27 staff had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, she said at the end of May. All have recovered. The testing continues and she was very pleased on a recent day to learn that all seven tests returned that day were negative. About 210 young men are in the facility and about 190 staff members work there. Sutton explained the department moved quickly to implement precautions and daily briefings so they were as ready as could be for the first case.

DYS falls under the umbrella of the Indiana Department of Corrections, which saw COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths of inmates and staff in five prisons beginning in April. Sutton and the DYS team oversee four correctional facilities for youths. Since formed in 2009, DYS has used balance and restorative justice model as the foundation for serving youths.

There was a bit of scare, she said, in May after the agency moved youths out of the Logansport intake unit to join the treatment unit across town and moved in some of the older, high-risk adult offenders from one of the nearby prisons. At that time, an outbreak of cases was reported in Cass County where the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility Intake & Treatment Unit is located. Almost 900 employees at the Tyson Food plant, also located in Logansport, tested positive for COVID-19 and many of the staff have family members who worked there. At this writing, not one youth has tested positive in the Logansport facilities and only one staff member tested positive.

Sutton credits early and frequent communications, daily at some points, from the top of the agency down to youths, staff and families of both the youths and the staff. Family members of the staff were concerned about their spouses and significant others going into facilities and they didn’t understand why, when they came home, they would stay away from their children. Youths kept in touch with their families via video and phone calls and were encouraged to make calls by staff more than ever. There were few complaints about visitation, she said.

Sending youths home was not as easy as it sounds. In Indiana, judges have releasing authority. Sutton and her team provided the court and the public defenders with the names of youths close to release but they ran into difficulties. For example, she and her team were most worried about a youth with cystic fibrosis and they tried to get him home early. But both of the youth’s parents are incarcerated and no other family members would take him. Another youth who was ordered to be released by a judge couldn’t be dropped off at home because his mother wasn’t able to take him home then. With some pause she said, “We kept running into things like that.”

The silver lining?

The fewest uses of force at the largest facility “in like, forever,” she said. PbS data showed half as many restraints were used at PNJ. Sutton wondered aloud why? Perhaps because the staff had to reduce the number of youths in school at one time and youths attended classes with their living units or perhaps because staff were practicing the compassion she encouraged and were being more attentive to the youths’ needs and emotions brought on by the pandemic, which she hopes will continue.

About the author

Kim Godfrey Lovett

Kim Godfrey Lovett

Kim is the executive director of the PbS Learning Institute. Kim was hired when CJCA incorporated in 1994 and has worked since it's inception to create the PbS system of continuous improvement to help facilities and agencies raise the quality of life and better conditions of confinement in youth facilities nationwide. She earned two master’s degrees: in journalism (Northwestern University) and criminal justice (Northeastern University.) She worked as a newspaper reporter for seven years prior to joining CJCA.