OKLAHOMA CITY — The Department of Corrections' strategy seems to be slowing the spread of the COVID-19 inside state prisons, an advocate said Tuesday.

Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said when he visited the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester last week, employees were complimentary of the agency's approach.

"They're really doing a pretty good job with it," he said.

"I think they're doing about as good as they could do under the circumstance. They're trying to keep it under control. It's so hard to do when you're in such a confined area."

He said correctional employees appreciate the $2-an-hour hazard pay increase for working in facilities designated as "hot spots" with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.

"The short version is our response seems to working," said Justin Wolf, a spokesman for the agency.

He said Monday only one "hot spot" remains. Facilities receive the designation when at least 20% of the population with celled housing tests positive for COVID-19 or at least 15% in open bay housing. Units could also be declared "hot" if they house inmates with acute medical needs or a vulnerable population.

A month ago, eight correctional facilities were designated "hot spots."

He said the agency has spent about $188,000 of the $1 million budgeted for the hazard pay initiative.

In all, 328 inmates and 74 employees have currently tested positive for COVID-19, corrections officials reported.

The week of Oct. 18-24, there were 292 positives inmate cases.

There have been 24 total inmate deaths possibly related to COVID.

But that's down from the system-wide high of 939 positive inmates in mid-September.

Wolf said visitation and volunteer programs remain shuttered.

"That is just one of the ways that we control it basically getting into our facility," he said. "Frankly, suspending visitation is not a decision we make lightly because that's part of an inmate's connection to their families and the outside. It's part of their rehabilitation process."

He said visitation would be restored as soon as it's safe, and inmates are being provided two free 10-minute phone calls a week through November.

Employees, meanwhile, undergo daily health screenings and temperature checks. Their workstations have been adjusted to lower the risk of additional spread, he said.

Staff is handing out extra personal protective equipment, and there are additional sanitation teams wiping down high-touch surfaces.

Also, inmate movement has been restricted during outbreaks in units, Wolf said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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