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Ala. prison employee dies from COVID-19

Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is currently home to the largest employee infection cluster in the state

By Melissa Brown
Montgomery Advertiser

WETUMPKA, Ala. — An Alabama prison employee has died after testing positive for coronavirus.

Alabama Department of Corrections announced late Thursday the staff member at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after a recent COVID-19 diagnosis.

Though information was not immediately available on where the employee would have contracted the illness, Tutwiler is currently home to the largest employee infection cluster in the entire state.

As of June 26, 29 staff or contracted staff members at Tutwiler had tested positive for the virus.

Prisoners housed at Tutwiler, the state’s prison for women, told the Montgomery Advertiser in early June that fear and concern was rampant in its dorms as the staff outbreak spread at the facility.

Testing of inmates in the system remains precipitously low compared to the levels of infection diagnosed among staff, with a little more than 1% of the inmate population tested so far. Of 62 positive cases in the prison population, five prisoners have died from suspected coronavirus complications.

153 prison staff have been diagnosed, 80 of which remain active infections.

ADOC announced Thursday three additional women incarcerated at Tutwiler have tested positive for the virus, included one who was not tested at the prison but was found to have the virus when she was hospitalized for “unrelated reasons.”

“A second Tutwiler inmate, housed in the infirmary, was tested for COVID-19 due to direct contact with an individual who later returned a positive test, and a third Tutwiler inmate was tested after exhibiting signs and symptoms of the disease,” ADOC said in a release. “Upon returning positive tests, the inmates were placed on medical isolation in the facility. Tutwiler’s infirmary remains on level-one quarantine, and the dormitory in which the third inmate was housed will also be placed on level-one quarantine.”

Women in Tutwiler’s medical dorm told the Advertiser earlier this month that they feared staff members were introducing the virus to the prison, which has limited outside visitors.

“It’s a huge concern especially in this particular dorm. It’s a medical dorm, yet there’s been so little done to help to try to prevent any additional sickness,” Devina Peters said. The dorm had been told a shipment of hand sanitizer was delivered “10-12 days” prior, but they were just given small bottles of hand sanitizer on June 3.

“It just seems like that should have been done a few months ago,” Peters said on June 5. “No one has been given the precautionary measures that should have been taken 3 months ago. Only in just the past several days have those come into effect. A great deal of it is, as inmates, we are out of sight, out of mind.”

ADOC acknowledged in early June that coronavirus has likely spread farther in Alabama prisons that inmate testing reveals, though it alleges prison officials are testing all symptomatic patients under CDC guidelines.

“The ADOC is under no illusions whatsoever that the coronavirus likely is not present at a higher degree within our facilities than what is reflected by the number of symptomatic cases we have confirmed through testing,” spokesperson Samantha Rose said in an emailed response to Montgomery Advertiser questions.

ADOC has refused to answer questions about the number of staff members who may not have been diagnosed but are unable to work due to the spread of infection.

An unknown number of staff and inmates have been recommended to quarantine for 14-day periods after determined by health investigators to have “direct, prolonged exposure” with each of the 81 cases. ADOC refused an Advertiser request for these numbers.

Three Tutwiler prisoners told the Advertiser they’ve witnessed critically low staffing numbers at Tutwiler prison, including an instance where multiple officers left in the middle of a shift in late May.

“Given the rapidly fluctuating nature of staff under precautionary self-quarantine, and the additional due diligence required by our already strained staff to verify these non-primary and non-critical statistics, the ADOC does not publicly report this data in its daily updates,” Rose said.


©2020 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)