When Antonio Lucio arrived at the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center in Vinita last month, he saw an environment where the coronavirus could spread quickly.
Lucio, who is serving a seven-year sentence for drug possession with intent to distribute, said he and several other inmates from the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite were not tested for COVID-19 before being transferred to the minimum-security work camp in Vinita. He said he was assigned to a housing unit with inmates from different facilities, and masks and cleaning supplies were in short supply.
“They were just stockpiling us all in one unit,” Lucio said from a prison phone. “It’s horrible.”
Six weeks after Lucio and other inmates from Granite arrived in Vinita, a coronavirus outbreak has overwhelmed the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center. As of Monday, 295 of 409 inmates and 38 staff at the prison had tested positive for the coronavirus. Lucio, who has thus far shown no symptoms, learned Friday night that he had tested positive.
Lucio said inmate access to personal protective equipment remains minimal, with prisoners receiving one disposable mask every week and one bar of soap every two weeks. Commissary access is limited due to a staff shortage, meaning inmates may not readily purchase their own cleaning supplies, Lucio said.
“It’s all bad right now,” he said. “This is supposed to be a work camp, not a death camp.”
Confirmed coronavirus cases in Oklahoma’s prison system have soared since July 22, when the corrections department reported 103 cases following an outbreak at the Lexington Correctional Center. As of Tuesday, 3,160 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus with 1,398 cases active. Nine inmate and three corrections staff deaths may have been caused by COVID-19, according to corrections department data.
Staff, visitors and inmate transfers may introduce the coronavirus to a prison population, making it difficult to pinpoint the source of any particular outbreak, corrections department spokesperson Justin Wolf said. Since July, hundreds of new inmate transfers have arrived at the Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center, which recently transitioned from a minimum-security prison to a community corrections center.
Following a pause on most transfers that lasted from mid-March through June, inmate movement through Oklahoma’s corrections system has picked up in recent months. During a Sept. 9 corrections board meeting, offender services director Millicent Newton-Embry said 4,518 inmates—about 21% of Oklahoma’s prison population—have been transferred to various facilities since mid-July. She attributed the high number of transfers to the recent closures of Kate Barnard Correctional Center, a minimum security women’s prison in Oklahoma City, and Cimarron Correctional Facility, a private men’s prison in Cushing.
Transferring inmates without first testing for the coronavirus may have contributed to at least one prison outbreak. On Aug. 27, the corrections department reported hundreds of new cases at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in Taft where nearly every inmate has since tested positive for COVID-19 and two inmates who showed COVID-19 symptoms have died.
Eddie Warrior inmates who spoke to The Frontier earlier this month say women there started getting sick after inmates and staff from Kate Barnard arrived in August. While the Kate Barnard inmates were screened for symptoms prior to being transferred, they were not tested for COVID-19. According to Wolf, a few Eddie Warrior inmates had already tested positive for the coronavirus before the inmates from Kate Barnard arrived, and it remains unclear if the transfer had any impact on the coronavirus outbreak.
Wolf said all inmates who are scheduled to be transferred to community corrections facilities, where they may come into contact with the general public, are tested for COVID-19. Inmates scheduled to be transferred to minimum, medium and maximum security facilities aren’t always tested, Wolf said. Due to the potential for asymptomatic spread, CDC guidelines recommend that states test all transferring inmates.
“We’ve been working with the Department of Health this whole time, and depending on the moves and situations at each facility, those decisions [on testing inmates] have been made,” he said.
Last week the corrections department reported new outbreaks at the William S. Key Correctional Facility in Fort Supply and Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester, both minimum security men’s prisons that have seen inmate movement since July. As of Tuesday, 784 of 1,087 inmates at William S. Key had tested positive for COVID-19.
DOC Changes Stance on Staff Testing
Last week’s White House Coronavirus Task Force report recommended that Oklahoma establish a plan to test workers in congregate settings, such as schools and prisons, as more tests become available. The Department of Corrections initially dismissed the possibility of a mandatory staff testing policy, claiming it would not be legal under medical privacy laws.
“Because it’s their own medical, their own personal medical care and medical treatment, we do not have the ability to force them to take a test,” corrections director Scott Crow told KOSU in an interview last week.
As prison outbreaks continue to emerge across the state, the corrections department is now adopting a new stance on staff testing.
During a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Crow said the corrections department would comply with recommendations from the CDC and Oklahoma Department of Health and implement a mandatory staff testing plan. The department will also increase surveillance testing of inmates with pre-existing health conditions, Crow said.
“As we’ve moved forward and continued to see increases in the number of positives we had, we felt we had to take another step forward to be more proactive, and that is basically mandatory testing of all of our staff,” Crow told members of the media. “One of the things we were concerned with early on is the legal ability for us to be able to do mandatory testing. We now have the framework in place, in working with the health department, to make sure we can confidently do that.”
The agency’s previous position on staff testing drew criticism from the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus, who claimed Oklahoma was ill-equipped to fight coronavirus outbreaks in prisons because there was not a mandatory staff testing program. States like New Jersey, West Virginia and North Carolina began mass testing of all corrections staff and inmates in May and June.
“While your administration has made statements labeling prison outbreaks as isolated events that do not affect the rest of the state, DOC employees are continuing to work in highly contagious environments and then returning to their communities without being tested,” wrote House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, in a Sept. 10 letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Since March corrections staff have been temperature checked and screened for symptoms prior to starting their shift, but this method of screening is not as reliable as testing because of the potential for asymptomatic spread.
As of Tuesday, 278 corrections staff from 21 prisons and halfway houses have tested positive for the coronavirus, with three staff deaths potentially caused by COVID-19. Staff who work in prisons designated as a hotspot facility will receive a $2-per-hour hazard pay increase effective immediately, the corrections department announced Tuesday.
Concerns Over Conditions Persist
After facing criticism over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, the Department of Corrections released a video on Sept. 10 titled “A day in the life of an Oklahoma prison.”
The two-minute video shows corrections staff at the Oklahoma State Reformatory wearing masks and face shields, inmates sanitizing floors and kitchen workers preparing large portions of healthy meals for prisoners.
Inmate rights advocates and family members of inmates say the video is a major misrepresentation of what’s really occurring in Oklahoma’s prisons.
“The video is an insult to anyone who has loved ones in prison, especially now with the coronavirus situation,” said Tanya Hathaway, an inmate rights advocate and talk radio host who regularly takes calls from family members of inmates. Hathaway said that she’s heard from dozens of family members of inmates who say that their loved ones aren’t getting enough to eat, are being treated poorly by staff and aren’t receiving adequate medical care.
Samantha Lucio, the wife of Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center inmate Antonio Lucio, said her husband continues to report insufficient meal portions and prison staff not taking coronavirus precautions seriously enough. She said it’s difficult to get a hold of her husband’s case manager and other prison staff to voice concerns about conditions.
“Every day, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, I worry about my husband being in there,” she said.
In response to a question about conditions at Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center, Wolf said the corrections department has an independent audit team tasked with ensuring conditions at all state facilities meet a minimum standard. The audit team has the authority to review staff logbooks and security video footage if an official complaint is made, Wolf said.
According to Hathaway, filing a complaint is not an easy process, and there’s no way to ensure the complaint will go up the chain of command to the right people.
“These people aren’t allowed to complain,” Hathaway said. “If they complain, they’re punished, or their complaint is tossed away. I’ve heard this from countless loved ones of inmates — if they call and talk to the warden, their loved one gets on the phone and says, ‘They’re telling me to tell you to leave them alone.’”
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