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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Montana State Prison Identifies More COVID-19 Cases Among Inmates

Montana State Prison remains on lockdown after a coronavirus outbreak ballooned since being discovered last week.

Over the past week MSP has conducted over 500 tests, which confirmed 81 positive cases or nearly 6 percent of the inmate population as of Thursday. MSP started a quarantine lockdown on Oct. 16.

When asked how positive cases are being isolated from the rest of the population, MSP Warden Jim Salmonsen said, "Unfortunately we don't, our staff do not know who the positive cases are. The cases that we know come in from outside the prison, we isolate them in our restricted housing unit, so we can isolate them by themselves because we’re assuming that they are infected when they come in so they can be quarantined for 14 days.

"But the positive cases that are currently inside Montana State Prison, Clinical Services knows who they are but our correctional staff don't. So we’re kind of assuming that all of them are positive. They live together, they sleep together, they share the same bathroom. So unfortunately we have to kind of assume that they’re all positives," Salmonsen said.

Salmonsen says inmates are mainly confined to their cells, which can house up to two people. He says inmates are cohorted and the prison tries to keep cohorts together as much as possible. Some groups are allowed thirty minutes per day for recreation and brief phone calls.

MSP houses a little over 1,400 inmates and employs about 700 people. The prison has a maximum capacity of 1,600 inmates. According to the Montana Department of Corrections website 39 staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

Recent testing in response to a coronavirus outbreak at Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby resulted in 225 positives, a 43 percent positivity rate among inmates tested.

Editor's note Oct. 25: Since this story was reported, the Montana Department of Corrections reports 166 inmates at Montana State Prison, or nearly 12 percent of the incarcerated population, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. A total of 61 staff have also tested positive through Friday, Oct. 23.

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio

Jess Sheldahl is a reporter for Yellowstone Public Radio and the host of Morning Edition as well as YPR's daily news podcast, The Worm.
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