Two weeks ago DeAnna Ray received the phone call she has feared since early March.
Her daughter Hannah, an inmate at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, told her that she had tested positive for COVID-19 after showing mild symptoms for weeks. Conditions at the facility were deteriorating as more women at the facility tested positive for the virus, Hannah told her mom. With a limited number of women feeling well enough to work in the kitchen, the inmates were receiving small portions of carbohydrate-heavy meals like macaroni and spaghetti. The sickest individuals were moved to a prison gymnasium with no air conditioning.
“Whether they’re in there for the right reason or in there for the wrong reason, they’re still human beings, they’re still God’s creatures,” DeAnna Ray said. “They deserve a chance at life and they deserve a chance at health care.”
A coronavirus outbreak at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center has generated widespread criticism from inmates, their families and criminal justice reform advocates, who say the Oklahoma Department of Corrections isn’t doing enough to slow the spread of COVID-19 and is ill prepared to handle surges of the virus. On Monday, a group of protestors gathered outside of Eddie Warrior asking for enhanced safety protocols and more transparency from prison officials.
Confirmed COVID-19 cases within Oklahoma’s prison system have soared the past six weeks. On July 22, corrections department officials reported 103 confirmed cases following an outbreak at the Lexington Correctional Center. As of noon on Friday, Sept. 4, 1,596 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus, with 1,040 active cases. Nearly half of the cases stem from the outbreak at Eddie Warrior, a minimum-security facility where 738 of 802 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. One inmate hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms died on Saturday.
Since early April, the Department of Corrections has limited inmate movement inside facilities and required staff to undergo a health screening before beginning their shift. Corrections guards must wear masks while on duty, department spokesperson Justin Wolf said in an email, but he could not confirm if prison officials were informed of the requirement in writing.
“I am certain that all employees are required to wear masks on duty,” Wolf wrote. “I am not certain that this was ever reduced to a written policy.”
Though mask and health screening protocols are essential, health experts say it is difficult to determine how much COVID-19 is spreading through a prison or jail without mass testing. While states such as North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey have tested their entire inmate populations for COVID-19, Oklahoma has tested less than half of its inmates for COVID-19 since March.
“Mass testing should be the standard of care,” said Brendan Saloner, an associate professor of health policy and management at John Hopkins University. “I was talking to the New Jersey Department of Health last week, that was one of the states that was really bad in terms of COVID-19 in their prisons, and they were telling me that now they test all prisoners every two weeks, and they test guards weekly. I think that’s the kind of model that would be helpful.”
Widespread testing of inmates is often an expensive and time consuming process. North Carolina officials said it cost about $3.3 million to test the 29,000 inmates under their care, and weeks to process all of the tests.
The expense and effort is worth it because prisons are far from closed off environments, Saloner said. Corrections staff, visitors and inmates transferred into a facility may bring the virus inside with them. Once introduced to a facility, the virus can spread rapidly.
Eddie Warrior inmates who spoke to The Frontier last week say women there started getting sick after inmates and staff from the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City arrived in August. While the inmates from Kate Barnard were screened for symptoms prior to their transfer, they were not tested for COVID-19. CDC guidelines recommend that states test all inmates before they join a general population.
Inmate movement between Oklahoma prisons has picked up since mid June, when the Department of Corrections resumed county jail transfers following a three-month hiatus. Since July 15, more than a thousand inmates have been transferred out of the Cimarron Correctional Facility, a private prison in Cushing that on Sept. 15 will officially close. There were 1,403 inmates housed at the facility as of July 13.
Difficulties Getting Tested
Family members of Oklahoma inmates say their loved ones don’t have the same access to coronavirus tests that the general public does.
Ray said her daughter reported a headache and loss of taste and smell to Eddie Warrior staff several days before the Oklahoma Department of Health arrived at the facility and conducted mass testing. Rather than schedule coronavirus tests for those displaying symptoms, the facility handed out over-the-counter painkillers, Ray said.
“I told her ‘Hannah, you need to go to medical’,” Ray said. “She said ‘mama, they don’t do anything, all they give us is Tylenol’.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity due to her status as a government employee, another woman whose daughter is incarcerated at Eddie Warrior said her daughter and other inmates started showing coronavirus symptoms, including a loss of taste and smell, in mid-August. Many of the incarcerated women were initially tested for strep throat, which turned up negative, the woman’s daughter told her over the phone.
Prisons Remain Crowded
In addition to widespread testing, health experts say reducing prison populations to allow for social distancing behind bars is critical to preventing outbreaks.
Oklahoma’s prison population has dropped 11.2% over the past five months, from 24,696 on March 30 to 21,911 on Aug. 31. The closures of Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center and Cimarron Correctional Facility have reduced overall system capacity, however, and many of Oklahoma’s prisons remain at or near their rated occupancy.
At Eddie Warrior in Taft, inmates live in dormitory style housing units where social distancing is next to impossible. In a statement released on Aug. 27, the corrections department said the close quarters living situation helped to create “a contract tracing web.”
Criminal justice reform advocates say Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board must take direct action to reduce the state’s prison population. Since March, the Pardon and Parole Board has considered just 14 inmates for medical parole, with 12 of them recommended for release. In Louisiana, corrections officials considered 1,100 inmates for medical parole in April, though only 63 were released.
“With incarcerated populations in Oklahoma, we’re talking about a lot of folks who are really vulnerable to having worst-case scenario cases of COVID-19 and possibly really long term impacts,” said Nicole McAfee, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “Medical parole has to be on the table. I think the governor’s office should be working on commutation options beyond that.”
In response to the Eddie Warrior outbreak, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Executive Director Kris Steele sent a letter to Gov. Kevin Stit and Corrections Director Scott Crow on Friday asking for expedited commutation and medical parole hearings and a temporary ban of inmate transfers and visitation.
“While the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has worked to implement CDC COVID-19 recommendations, it is impossible to entirely stop the spread of COVID-19 among correctional populations and staff,” Steele said in the letter. “Oklahoma’s high incarceration rates mean that Oklahoma’s prisons cannot adequately protect people through social distancing.”
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections board will meet at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9. Offender services director Millicent Newton-Embry is scheduled to provide a COVID-19 update.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss