Dozens of National Guard soldiers step in to help SC prisons during COVID-19 pandemic

Updated: Nov. 18, 2020 at 7:18 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Hundreds of National Guard soldiers are still responding to COVID-19 in South Carolina, and dozens of them are helping in our prisons.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections has reported more than 2,400 cases of COVID-19 in inmates, more than 550 cases in staff members, and 33 deaths associated with the virus. “We’ve been hit hard, our staff has been hit hard, our inmate population has been hit hard,” SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said.

Stirling reached out to the National Guard in May, after realizing the pandemic was going to have a big impact on the prison system. With hundreds of prisoners having to quarantine and staff members out sick, these soldiers are helping to fill the gap. “They’ve been a tremendous asset with what they’re doing,” Sterling explained. “We know they go to war for us, but they’re literally going to war inside the prisons against COVID, as are our correctional officers and staff.”

One team of sixteen soldiers cooks 750 meals a week at Goodman Correctional Institution in Richland County, where 80 inmates have had the virus, and the rest are still in quarantine. “Imagine getting up at two o’clock in the morning and being here at two-thirty and beginning to cook meals every day, seven days a week,” said Director of the Joint Staff of the South Carolina National Guard Major General Brad Owens said.

Five other teams of soldiers are doing 5,600 vital sign checks a day for inmates on quarantine because of potential exposure.

This includes checking temperatures and measuring blood-oxygen levels and blood pressure. “That provides a sense of early detection, so the SCDC staff can take immediate protective measures,” Major General Owens said.

Protecting these soldiers is key, and anyone entering the prison must go through rigorous security and safety checks. Across the South Carolina National Guard, Owens says there are only twelve soldiers in quarantine. “General McCarty and the staff have done a tremendous job in balancing the mission with the health of the force,” he explained.

The guard’s COVID-19 response is the longest active-duty mission in its history, and Ownes says the personal connection helps keep the soldiers going. “Unlike clearing a road during a hurricane or after a major flood, you are impacting somebody’s life face to face,” Owens said.

These men and women are on the frontlines doing what they can to try to save as many South Carolinians from this deadly virus. “What the National Guard is doing here is tremendous; it’s literally saving people’s lives,” Stirling said.

SCDC says most of the inmates at Broad River Correctional Institution should be cleared this week after they do another round of targeted COVID-19 testing. The agency has also requested CARES Act funding to help offset the $1 million it spent to install air purifier machines in its facilities.

In addition to helping in the state’s prisons, more than 400 soldiers are also assisting other state agencies with tasks, such as rural testing, and there are even National Guard members sitting on the state’s vaccine task force.

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