"So we're trying to be as creative as we can— some of our chaplains are doing things like developing their reflections and Communion services and programming, working from home and getting ahead, and using this time for getting things ready for when we can go back in, so that they're well ahead of the game," Cotton told CNA.
He said his team that normally ministers at a juvenile facility got especially creative, setting up a telephone answering service to forward calls from inmates directly to chaplains' cell phones, depending on a schedule of chaplains' availability throughout the week that they set up.
"Tonight's my night, for example. So between five and nine, I'll have my cell phone on me, and if the answering service calls me, it means someone on the inside wants to talk to a chaplain over the phone. So that's one of the creative things that we're doing to at least make chaplains still available...although that's not happening in every facility."
Art Alvarez, who has ministered at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles for the past 14 years, told CNA that for now, he is still able to go into the facility to minister to the men, but must keep a safe distance to avoid bringing in the virus.
In L.A., chaplains are still able to enter county jails, though that may soon change. In state prisons, all the chaplains’ operations have been canceled.
Alvarez said he has had to adapt to speaking to the men through the doors of their cells through food slots that are no longer used for food, but which are once again serving a purpose.
He said the inmates are able to have access to the news and have a pretty good idea what is going on.
"They're concerned about their families on the outside. But on the inside, with the deputies, they feel pretty safe," he said.
At at least one major prison— Rikers Island in New York— authorities have released dozens of inmates over fears that they may have contracted the virus. Many county jails are doing the same.
At least 38 people at Rikers Island have contracted COVID-19 and dozens more have likely been exposed to it, the Associated Press reports.
Prison officers and staff in states including California and Michigan have tested positive for the virus, and in Wisconsin, 18 inmates at a prison were quarantined last week after a facility doctor tested positive for the virus, according to reporting from the AP.
In Los Angeles county, which has the largest prison population of any county in the United States, prisoners with non-violent criminal records and who have between two and three months left of their sentences are being released.
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Alvarez said he is also continuing to assist with what are known as “extractions”— per state policy, if an inmate refuses to leave his cell, a doctor, a nurse, or a chaplain must be brought in and try to talk the inmate out of his cell before the deputies are allowed to use force.
He said he was recently asked to assist with an extraction whereby the inmate was informed that he was being released, but he didn’t believe that it was really happening.
"This guy didn't want to go home. He didn't want to leave," Alvarez said.
Alvarez said the jail has prepared two entire floors for quarantine, but as of March 21, no inmates are there.
He said the inmates’ attitudes are mixed during this time of uncertainty, and he said the chaplains are trying to reassure the inmates that they are in many ways safer inside than jail
“Some want to stay in, some want to go home and be with their families and protect their families,” he said.