As COVID-19 cases rise in more than half of U.S. states, the Montana Department of Corrections (MDOC) works relentlessly to ensure the health and security of all Montanans.
“The DOC has undertaken numerous measures to protect the health and safety of its staff, inmates, and the public,” said Carolyn Bright, communications director at MDOC.
These measures are based on guidance from the Department of Corrections (DOC’s) clinical services staff, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and the CDC’s Interim Guidance on Management of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Correctional and Detention Facilities.
According to bright, some of those measures include:
“Suspension of visitation at secure our facilities. To help keep inmates connected with the families and friends, our service provider, CenturyLink, provides each inmate with one free phone call and one free video visitation every week.
“Ongoing education from our registered nurses for both staff and inmates. This includes instruction on how to recognize symptoms of the virus, how to minimize risk of becoming infected (proper hygiene, social distancing), etc.
“Increased cleaning and sanitization efforts at DOC facilities.
“Daily screening of staff members. This includes taking their temperatures, asking about any symptoms consistent with COVID-19, travel and more.
“Mandatory use of cloth face masks by staff members. Inmates also have been provided with cloth masks for their use.
“As per Governor Bullock’s April 1, 2020 directive, movement into and among detention centers and DOC facilities was halted for a period of time. Currently, the department has adopted minimal, coordinated movement that requires screening, quarantine when recommended by clinical services staff and DPHHS, and more to prevent the introduction of the virus to any secure facilities, prereleases, treatment centers, or local detention centers.
“Symptomatic and sentinel testing of staff and inmates. The DOC conducts testing on all symptomatic inmates who meet CDC criteria for testing. In addition, the department is conducting ‘sentinel’ testing of staff and inmates at its facilities. This testing is for individuals who do not demonstrate active symptoms (asymptomatic). Information obtained through sentinel testing helps to guide response efforts and better protect offenders and employees alike.”
Inmate Numbers vs COVID-19 Cases
Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge — As of June 17, 2020, 1,502 inmates were housed and there were zero confirmed COVID cases.
Montana Women’s Prison in Billings — As of June 17, 2020, 193 inmates were housed, with 1 confirmed COVID-19 case. This inmate was immediately quarantined.
“Facility-wide testing was conducted, and the DOC’s clinical staff and state health officials do not believe any other inmates were infected,” Bright stated. “However, sentinel testing will be ongoing at all DOC facilities, including Montana Women’s Prison.”
Work and Reentry Center (WRC) in Deer Lodge — As of June 18, 2020, 176 inmates were housed and there were zero confirmed COVID cases.
Identifying Offenders who may Meet Early Release Qualifications:
In his April 1, 2020 Directive, Gov. Steve Bullock defined criteria for inmates who may be considered for early release. That directive read:
“…Board of Pardons and Parole to consider early release for all of the following, but only so long as they do not pose a public safety risk and can have their medical and supervision needs adequately met in the community:
Inmates aged 65 or older;
Inmates with medical conditions that place them at high risk during this pandemic or who are otherwise medically frail;
Pregnant inmates; or
Inmates nearing their release date”
Bright stated: “The DOC is working with the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole to identify offenders who may meet the qualifications for early release.”
In-person visitation is currently suspended by recommendation of the Clinical Services staff, with guidance from the Montana DPHHS and CDC.
CenturyLink provides each inmate with one free phone call and one free video visitation every week to help inmates remain in contact with their families and friends during this difficult time.
“The DOC is well aware of the importance these connections have to the well-being of inmates at our secure facilities and is committed to restoring in-person visitation as soon as we are advised we can safely do so,” stated Bright.
Bright added that Department staff has worked tirelessly throughout this unprecedented time to ensure the security of Montanans and provide offenders with the services they need to be successful.
The 2020 Richland County Fair may be held with specific guidelines and restrictions.
Then again, the Fair might be cancelled this year because of COVID-19. That’s the recommendation of the Richland County Board of Health.
Composed of seven members, the county Board of Health this week recommended to the Richland County Commissioners that the 2020 Fair be cancelled because of concerns surrounding COVID-19 restrictions established by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
The recommendation was made at a meeting earlier in the week. A motion was made by a Board of Health member to cancel the Fair, it was reported. Two of the county commissioners abstained from voting, while one reportedly expressed his opinion the Fair should continue.
A final vote was postponed until Monday, June 29, when all three Richland County Commissioners will decide the fate of this year’s Fair.
Richland County Commissioner Shane Gorder told the Sidney Herald the commissioners anticipate a recommendation from the County Fair board about whether they think the Fair should be cancelled or continued as planned.
“I believe we’ll hear from the Fair Board and the Fair manager,” Gorder said. “We’ll either make a decision that day [June 29], or later. I know we want to make a decision before July First.”
Asked if he felt the Fair should be cancelled because of concerns about COVID-19, particularly large events where more than 50 people gather, Gorder said he needs more information.
Gorder explained he abstained from voting on the motion made by the County Board of Health out of fairness.
“I felt it was necessary to hear from the Fair Board and the Fair manager,” he said.
Gorder will join fellow commissioners Loren Young and Duane Mitchell on Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. for a decisive vote on whether to cancel or continue the County Fair. The meeting is open to the public.
Young also abstained from voting on the motion, according to Gorder, who said Commissioner Mitchell voiced his opinion at this week’s meeting that the Fair should continue.
“Commissioner Mitchell voted ‘yes’ — to move forward,” Gorder said.
All three County Commissioners also serve on the Richland County Board of Health, along with four other volunteers: Ray Trumpower, Melissa Boyer, Kari Johnson and Terry Meldahl.
In addition to the recommendation by a majority of Board of Health members, Richland County Sheriff John Dynneson supported cancelling the 2020 Fair.
“John Dynneson recommended it would be tough for law enforcement,” Gorder reported.
Sheriff Dynneson told the Sidney Herald he supports cancelling the Fair because he believes it will be difficult to abide by guidelines set forth by the governor’s office.
“I think it would be difficult to ensure that those guidelines be enforced,” Sheriff Dynneson said. “We’re exposing our people to contracting Covid. So it puts our [deputies] at risk.”
Although Dynneson said he thinks the 2020 Richland County Fair should be cancelled, the sheriff made clear he will follow the wishes of the county commissioners if they vote on Monday to continue the Fair in some capacity.
“We’ll abide by the decision,” he said. “We’ll do our best to do our job.”
Sheriff Dynneson added: “It is concerning to me because I hate to see the community have a widespread [outbreak] of Covid across the county. I understand it’s very important for the people of the community to have an event like this. I don’t expect what I say is the final say.”
Tammy Christensen, a member of the County Fair Board, made clear no decision will be made before Monday’s County Commissioners meeting.
“At this time, the Fair has not been cancelled,” Christensen told the Sidney Herald on June 24.
Sidney Mayor Rick Norby said he had no knowledge about whether the Fair had been cancelled. However, he pointed out it’s a difficult position for elected officials to be in when local public health officials recommend cancellation.
“Keeping procedures in place” is a challenge, Norby said, adding that elected officials are held accountable if something goes wrong.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Mayor Norby told the Sidney Herald. “If the health department makes that recommendation...you kind of have to go with it.”
Richland County Health Department Administrator Brittney Peterson, MS, said, “It might be best not to hold the Fair due to health reasons.”
Peterson pointed out the County Fair is just one of many events the Richland County Health Department has discussed in relation to COVID-19 and restrictions implemented by Gov. Bullock. She clarified that the County Board of Health, comprising seven local citizens, made the recommendation to cancel the Fair. It was not the County Health Department that made the motion to cancel it.
“The Board of Health made a recommendation but actually the decision is up to the [county] commissioners,” Peterson said. “The role of the Board of Health...they’re tasked with protecting the members of the community. It wasn’t a decision that they made lightly.”
Jamie Larson, manager of the Fair, made clear she is not a member of the Richland County Fair Board.
“I’m a county employee,” Larson said. “I am not a member of the Fair Board. The Fair Board are volunteers that are appointed by the County Commissioners.”
Larson said she is prepared to move forward with whatever decision the commissioners make. She pointed out, however, Fair management already developed a plan, along with the county Board of Health, to hold the Fair under Phase 2 guidelines.
“At this point, we’re still planning to go ahead with the concert — the entertainment,” Larson said, prefacing no concert or rodeo tickets have been offered for sale yet.
Larson noted that under current Phase 2 guidelines groups of 50 can meet as one unit, provided the entire group remains at least six feet apart from other groups of 50 participants.
“Social distancing is such a key, and sanitation is as well,” Larson said. “I never thought we’d be in this position when this started.”
Although she was careful not to second-guess the outcome of Monday’s County Commissioners meeting, Larson sounded hopeful. She made clear the Fair’s Board and management are preparing for several scenarios, including holding the Fair under close scrutiny.
“It will look and feel different,” Larson said reassuringly.
Sidney Lions scholarship recipients (L–R): Ximena Rosas, Everett Jensen, and Rae Hintz.
Fifteen concrete arches have been put in their places at the Long X bridge, part of a wildlife underpass that will help protect sheep and other wildlife in the area that might otherwise be compelled during their migration season to brave a highway frequented by overweight trucks.
Many workers, including from Sidney, have had to travel this route for the oil and gas industry.
Bill Panos, Director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, told a group of lawmakers touring the site recently that the wildlife tunnel will cost about $3 million. The point of this expense is not solely to take care of wildlife, however. It is also safety for human beings.
“We’ll do more of these, I’m sure,” he said, indicating that federal programs are making more funds available for wildlife passages. Data is showing how well they work to protect both humans and wildlife from what is often a potentially fatal interaction for one or both parties.
The decision whether to go over or under is based on biological surveys that take into account the preferences of the animal in question, as well as the logistics at a particular site. The wildlife biologists will also watch the passage and tweak things to ensure everything is working as intended.
Work is now well underway for the 2020 construction season at the Long X bridge. The historic span is being replaced with a newer, wider structure. A portion of the old bridge will be salvaged by a Linton-area rancher, who has told media outlets he plans to install it over Beaver Creek on his land.
Three cranes are on site to lift large concrete structures and gently set them into place. Some of these concrete pieces are as high as a person, and appeared to be a football field or so in length.
The concrete arches that make up the wildlife tunnel are $80,000 per pair, and included 15 of them.
Panos said the state is advancing all $320 million or so of its highway projects in the state by about two months. Gov. Doug Burgum announced the initiative a few weeks ago. It’s part of an effort to provide job opportunities for the thousands laid off amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Long X bridge replacement is a $34 million project, and expected to be completed late this year. The project is part of a multi-phase project to improve the safety of Highway 85, which at times during the boom led the state in fatalities.
Steve Selwei, director of Transportation Programs for North Dakota Department of Transportation, told the Williston Herald the state is still trying to procure funding to convert Highway 85 to four lanes from Watford City to the Long X bridge.
They’ve put in another application for $45 million from INFRA, which is a federal grant program. That would be about one-half the cost of four-laning the 30-mile stretch.
“We are hoping they will announce something this spring,” Selwei said. “But it is strictly up to the U.S. DOT.”
This will be the third go for an INFRA grant for North Dakota. Last year, the state was again denied funding for a $40 million infrastructure grant from what was then an approximately $900 million pot of money.
Panos said he has talked about that with the DOT this year about the grant earlier this year.
“Matter of fact, they mentioned to me that North Dakota is one of only 13 states that hasn’t received one of those grants,” he said, indicating he believes the state has a good chance of getting funds this time.
The Long X portion of Highway 85 is used by 4,200 vehicles per day, according to state traffic counts.
Cal Klewin, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association, has long been an advocate for four-laning Highway 85.
He has compiled figures showing that Highway 85 is carrying most of the state’s oversized and overweight permits.
“That pretty much tells what the need is to have this in a four-lane system,” he said. “We will continue to push forward and do whatever we can to complete the project. It is a high priority corridor on the national highway system and it is a very high priority in North Dakota as far as our transportation system.”