COVID-19 cases in prison system rise as family mourns first correctional officer to die from the illness

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — This week employees with the Indiana Department of Correction are mourning the loss of the first correctional officer to die as a result of COVID-19.

At the same time, the number of positive cases inside the state prison system continues to rise.

So far, 148 DOC employees have tested positive, resulting in two deaths.

The victims include a staff member at Indiana Woman’s Prison as well as a 67-year-old guard at Wabash Valley identified as Gary Weinke.

After the death, a procession of cars drove past the home of Gary’s wife Naomi Weinke.

“You know Gary is going to be missed dearly.  He was loved by many,” said Fred Littlejohn, acting warden at Wabash Valley Correctional. “You know it leaves a void within all of us.”

Littlejohn says Gary worked at the facility for 13 years.

“A lot of people would describe Gary as a ‘tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy,’ but he always did it with a gentle heart,” said Littlejohn.

Gary and his wife would often host cookouts for his coworkers.

“We are a pretty tight-knit group.  Everybody has each others backs.  We get to know them personally and professionally.  We spend more time with them than our families working 12-hour shifts,” said Littlejohn.  “We’re a family here and he was one of the family leaders that we had.”

“The DOC is in a real bind and they understand that,” said ACLU legal director Ken Falk.

In addition to the DOC employees like Gary, 321 offenders statewide have tested positive for COVID-19, with 6 presumed and confirmed deaths.

Falk argues the DOC needs to do more to protect guards and inmates alike.

“The key I think is looking for ways to release people, if only temporarily, out of the prison system to reduce the population,” said Falk.

A plan drawn up by the DOC details increased monitoring and sanitation inside of prisons, as well as isolation of offenders who show symptoms of illness.

Despite losing one of his guards, the warden at Wabash maintains they’re doing everything they can to protect everyone in their care.

“You know when you talk about the virus, it has no boundaries and it reaches you everywhere.  We’ve been taking it serious from the beginning,” said Littlejohn.

The ACLU believes the a lack of testing in prisons is keeping the positive numbers lower than they actually are.

DOC officials made clear during the governor’s daily update on Monday they do not plan to test every inmate.

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