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SC prison officer tests positive for the coronavirus

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Broad RIver Prison03.JPG (copy)

Inside Broad River Correctional. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A South Carolina prison officer tested positive for the coronavirus, the state Department of Corrections announced Friday evening.

The officer, who received the test result on Friday, last worked at Broad River Correctional Institution on March 17, agency spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said in an email. He worked in a housing unit with 16 inmates. All were in cells by themselves, she said, and they did not have symptoms as of Friday.

Those inmates are being quarantined and will be monitored, Shain said. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is investigating if other staff members or inmates were in close contact with the officer.

The officer, who was not named, has been in self-isolation for 10 days and will not return to work until he recovers, Shain said. She said he did exactly what the agency wants its staff to do: Stay home if they are sick.

The officer is the first prison employee to test positive for the coronavirus, she said. None of the system's 18,000 inmates have tested positive.

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina has expressed concern that people in the state's prisons and jails are at risk from outbreaks of contagious illnesses because they are housed in close quarters and are often in worse health than the general population.

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Shirene Hansotia, criminal justice policy and legal counsel for the organization, said that Gov. Henry McMaster should call for the release of dangerously vulnerable inmates in the state's prisons, because the corrections department doesn't have the authority to do so on its own. Those include the elderly, people with serious underlying medical conditions and compromised immune systems and pregnant women, she said.

The ACLU of SC sent a letter to the Department of Corrections on Friday, asking the agency to be more transparent in how it is responding to the coronavirus by providing daily updates on whether or not any staff or inmates have tested positive, if anyone at a prison has been quarantined and how many testing kits it has.

Shain said that the corrections department is working with the ACLU and inmate family groups "to make sure concerns are heard and everyone is informed."

Also on Friday, state health officials announced four additional coronavirus deaths and 86 new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. That brought the state's total to 13 deaths and 539 cases overall.

Only essential personnel are being allowed into the state's 21 prisons and everyone who enters or leaves an institution has their temperature taken, Shain said. She said that inmates are currently allowed to have time for recreation and education. They are given soap and have access to cleaning supplies, she said.

Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter @bystephenhobbs.

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