SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
To slow the spread of the coronavirus, people are advised to stay 6 feet apart, wear masks and regularly wash or sanitize their hands. But all of that is hard to do in prisons. Indiana has 21 prisons and so far has reported nine coronavirus deaths among prisoners and two among staff. Correction officials say they're taking measures to prevent more infections. But as Jake Harper with Side Effects Public Media found, inmates say they don't feel safe.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This call is from a corrections facility.
JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: That's Dennis calling his wife Lisa from inside the Plainfield Correctional Facility. We're not using their last name because they fear retaliation from prison staff.
LISA: How are you feeling?
DENNIS: I'm doing bad. I'm not doing good at all.
HARPER: Dennis was sick. He sleeps in a dorm of about 80 men. The week before, he says, several men had fevers, but they weren't immediately isolated. Dennis said after that, staff hadn't checked their temperatures.
LISA: Just that one time?
DENNIS: Yeah, that's the only time they've ever done it. You know, we don't have no access to any other thermometer or anything.
HARPER: Now, Dennis' head was splitting, and his chest hurt, which worried Lisa. Dennis is in his 50s, and he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That could cause complications if he gets the virus.
LISA: This scares me so bad.
DENNIS: It scares me, too. I just - I've got to think that I'm going to be OK. And, you know, most of the guys in here are saying, well, we all got it. Just some of us have symptoms, some of us don't.
HARPER: The Indiana Department of Corrections says it follows CDC guidelines and has its own outbreak response plan. The agency posted a video update on its website.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We continually resupply soap and hand sanitizer at all correctional facilities.
HARPER: Relatives of inmates in several Indiana prisons spoke with NPR. They shared messages and recorded their calls. Inmates say social distancing is impossible. Their bunks are a few feet apart. For many, there's no hand sanitizer. And until recently, guards weren't wearing masks. Here's a second inmate calling from the same prison as Dennis, Plainfield.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's a breeding ground for infections and viruses. And now we got a reason to be scared for our lives.
HARPER: He and his wife asked not to be named to avoid retaliation. He was in a different dorm than Dennis, but the story was similar - no social distancing even after people showed symptoms.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: At this very moment, I can reach out and touch somebody, and now somebody else.
HARPER: His wife told NPR her husband tried to make a tent with blankets to protect himself. A correctional officer told him to take it down.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I normally would tell my husband to comply with what he's being told, but at this point, I told him absolutely not. This is the only way that you have to even protect yourself.
HARPER: None of these stories surprised Lauren-Brooke Eisen. She's with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.
LAUREN-BROOKE EISEN: People in prisons in this country are usually sharing cells, sharing toilets. And that's why these communicable diseases spread so quickly.
HARPER: Eisen says Indiana could release some prisoners, like the elderly or inmates near the end of their sentences. It would give people inside more room. Governors in Ohio, Kentucky and New York have ordered the release of some prisoners. But Indiana's Republican governor, Eric Holcomb, has resisted calls to do that. He recently downplayed the situation in prisons.
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ERIC HOLCOMB: I think we've done an admirable job. We have got our offenders in a safe place - we believe maybe even safer than just letting them out.
HARPER: Within a week of those comments, three prisoners had died. State officials won't say how many prisoners have been tested and declined to be interviewed. Some inmates were finally given masks. Some got a new bar of soap. When that happened, they guessed correctly that a prisoner had died. When Lisa heard the governor say prisoners are probably safer inside, she laughed.
LISA: Wow, that's a big lie. They have them herded like cattle, where the virus can just jump from one to the other. There's no protection.
HARPER: She says, yeah, the prisoners were sentenced for their crimes, but they weren't sentenced to death.
For NPR News, I'm Jake Harper.
SIMON: That story comes from a reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News.