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Social distancing to combat COVID-19 tough behind bars
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Social distancing to combat COVID-19 tough behind bars

Porter County jail

Male inmates eat lunch at the Porter County Jail in this file photo.

The layout of the LaPorte County Jail does not allow inmates to remain six feet apart and in compliance with the state's social distancing requirements to combat the spread of COVID-19, according to the sheriff department's Capt. Derek Allen.

Inmates spend half their day in their cells, but have little option than to come together to eat and socialize, he said.

"It's hard enough to manage inmates, let alone keeping them six feet apart," he said.

Indiana governor orders Hoosiers to stay home until April 7, except for essential needs

County jails and prisons across the state face the same challenge of implementing precautions against the coronavirus in tight and often crowded conditions that leave little room for healthy distancing.

Indiana's prison populations are still eating meals together in large groups and mixing during outdoor recreation even as Hoosiers are keeping their distance in compliance with Wednesday's stay-at-home order, The Journal Gazette reported.

The Indiana Department of Correction suspended visitation at its prisons two weeks ago to limit the possibility of the virus being brought into the state’s 20 correctional facilities. A recent directive from the agency's commissioner also outlined pandemic procedures, including monitoring for outbreaks and separating ill offenders from other inmates.

Answers to questions about Indiana's stay-at-home order amid COVID-19 outbreak

Agency spokesman David Bursten said that during outdoor recreation periods, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on social distancing of six feet or more "are being followed as permitted."

He said that regarding inmate meal times, Indiana’s "correctional housing facility does not allow for meal service in groups of 10 or less."

Porter County Sheriff's Police Cpl. Benjamin McFalls said, "We do not have large dining halls compared to the prisons. The inmates eat where they are currently housed, not in a separate location.

Paula Coopers Prison

Razor wire surrounding the Rockville Correctional Facility in Rockville, Ind. on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015.

"In addition, we do not have outdoor recreation," he said.

Allen said his department is doing what it can to head off exposure in the jail, including screening the health of incoming inmates through questioning and the taking of temperatures.

Food preparation workers are also wearing gloves, masks and hairnets, he said.

The IDOC points out that there are no known cases of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, among the nearly 27,000 offenders housed at the state's prisons, but it also concedes that it hasn't tested any of those inmates.

UPDATE: Region now has 42 COVID-19 cases; 645 reported in Indiana

Bursten said agency 13 staff members have been tested for COVID-19 and some staff were positive. But he provided no other details on cases of the virus among employees with the department, which has more than 5,600 employees, according to the state website.

Critics question risk of businesses staying open; cops, owners navigate COVID-19 nuances

“The Indiana Department of Correction will manage infectious diseases in correctional facilities through a comprehensive approach which includes prevention, testing, appropriate treatment, education and infection control measures,” the agency wrote on its website.

LaPorte and Porter counties rely on video visitation for jail inmates.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Gallery: Once-bustling Region sites empty as COVID-19 infects NWI


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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.

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