Mississippi jails and prisons face impact of Omicron variant

MDOC operating under tight restrictions to keep the spread of the virus low.

WINSTON COUNTY, Miss. (WCBI)- The spike in COVID-19 is felt everywhere, but the state’s jail and prison population can be particularly vulnerable to outbreaks…. because they have nowhere else to go.

That has the Mississippi Department of Corrections operating under tight restrictions to keep the spread of the virus low.

” We’ve kept one or two positive cases up here all the time,” said Higgason.

With a large group of people in close quarters – all the time – keeping one or two cases from becoming an outbreak is a challenge.

Neil Higgason, the Warden at Winston-Choctaw Regional Correctional Facility, said most inmates received a vaccine in March of 2021.

“Our inmate population on the stateside is nearly fully vaccinated. The ones that would take the vaccine, it’s not forced. It was a volunteer basis, but most of them did want it. They have not gotten the booster yet, but that’s coming,” said Higgason.

Now, just months later, Higgason said they’re facing another spike due to the more contagious omicron variant.

Officers monitor symptoms daily and pay close attention to new inmates booked into the facility.

” We have to take whoever gets arrested. It’s a challenge to keep the ones sick separated from the ones who are well,” said Higgason.

So if an attorney needs to visit a client for an upcoming case, what’s the protocol?

“Masking up and sanitizing. Of course, we screen people who are going to be in contact with inmates for fever and more,” said Higgason.

WCBI asked the Warden if the facility implemented alternatives to eliminate in-person contact.

” Attorneys have a legal right to see the person that they’re representing. We don’t have a legal ground to stand on and stop them. We’ve offered alternatives such as FaceTime or a video visit, but when it comes to guaranteeing they could meet confidentially, they declined,” said Higgason.

And it’s not just affecting visitation—a few programs are put on pause due to high participation volume.

” In one class, I have about 40 inmates that I could serve, but once COVID came in, I had to cut those classes down, some under half,” said Chaplain Anthony McIntosh.

McIntosh was named Chaplain this month. He previously served as the facility’s program coordinator.

“We have six different zones, and we have a county side. With those zones, if you got a particular zone that’s in quarantine, you don’t want to mix those guys with other people. We take those safety measures with that to keep everyone safe,” said McIntosh.

Visitation is restricted to family and relatives until further notice.

State inmates can schedule video and audio meetings weekly.

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