COVID-19 cases rise among Ala. prison staff members
The Alabama Department of Corrections will not release data revealing how many staffers are in self-quarantine
By Melissa Brown
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — As coronavirus cases among Alabama prison correctional staff continue to increase, the Alabama Department of Corrections will not release data revealing how many prison staff are in self-quarantine or the number of people who have died in their custody since January.
In a two-week period, confirmed COVID-19 infections among prison staff rose from 46 to 84 diagnoses. 29 people have "recovered," according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.
The estimated per capita infection rate among prison staff is exponentially higher than that of the inmate population. Roughly 1% of the prison inmate population has been tested, and only 37 people have been diagnosed, less than 0.2% of the entire prison population.
Prisoners housed at Tutwiler, the state's prison for women, said last week fear and concern is rampant in its dorms as a staff outbreak continues to spread at the facility. By June 11, 25 staff members at the prison had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the largest cluster yet identified in the prison system.
Among the prison population, only eight women had been tested, according to June 11 data. Three have tested positive.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases appear to be climbing throughout Alabama while the River Region, where Tutwiler is located, is experiencing a sustained outbreak that is threatening its hospital capacity.
ADOC acknowledged this week 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. "It is probable, based on what we’ve seen in our communities and in other confined institutions, that there have been and/or currently are a number of undiagnosed, asymptomatic cases among our inmate population. At this point, it is widely accepted and understood that asymptomatic cases are an inevitability."
Rose said ADOC's current testing strategy is "about slowing the impact of the virus and maintain critical medical services, which we believe we are doing and will continue to do. It’s about doing everything we can to protect those who we know have been exposed, and preventing them from potentially infecting others while contagious. Finally, it’s about caring for those who do get sick and helping them to fully recover wherever possible."
For now, the Alabama Department of Corrections says only two people have died after being diagnosed with coronavirus: William Hershel Moon, 72, and Dave Thomas, 66. Moon, the second to die, was previously named by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of the prison system's most at-risk prisoners. The Alabamians for Fair Justice coalition has called for compassionate release or parole of older or medically fragile prisoners.
The prison system this week refused to release the names or the overall number of people who have died in state custody since January 1, 2020.
When asked if ADOC did not have an up-to-date list of inmate deaths in its possession, Rose pushed back, saying monthly statistical reports had been delayed due to coronavirus and the system was unable to release a comprehensive list of deaths at this time.
"ADOC immediately is made aware when an inmate passes away, and an investigation into the inmate’s death — regardless of the apparent cause — immediately is initiated," Rose said. The most recent available data is from February, and Banks said March's would be available in two to three weeks.
In a series of tweets this week, state Rep. Chris England called for Gov. Kay Ivey to address transparency concerns in the department and prison conditions statewide.
"Historically (ADOC) has not been the most transparent government agency," England said. The legislator also pointed to at least six deaths at Kilby prison in two weeks, which ADOC provided details to on Friday.
Of the six deaths, one tested negative for COVID-19 and the other five were not tested before they died as they did not display any symptoms, Rose said. All died from apparent complications related to preexisting medical conditions, Rose said, though full autopsies are pending.
As cases rise among prison staff, three women incarcerated at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women tell the Advertiser they fear incoming staff are introducing coronavirus to the prison population, where they allege women have presented symptoms such as fever without being tested.
Mia Sims, a prisoner housed in Tutwiler's medical dorm as she recovers from giving birth earlier this year, said Tutwiler dorms have been upended in recent days as staff rearranged dorms for new quarantine levels.
Twenty-five staff members at Tutwiler have tested positive, with one additional person who has been deemed medically recovered, the most of any prison in the state.
"It’s all the officers bringing it in," Sims said. "They waited too late to be worried about it."
Some, including Keshauna Cummings, are soon to return to the free world and fear they will transport the virus from inside prison walls.
"I go home on June 12," Cummings said. "My mama's kidneys are only functioning 25%. I can’t go home like this to my mama. I’m worried about myself, and my peers around me. What’s going to happen to them when I leave?"
"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."
Rose said inmates were given "unlimited access" to antibacterial hand soap prior, and hand sanitizer was at two separate access points in the prison up until June 3.
Cummings and two other women say 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. Davina Peters expressed worry for both the officers remaining and the inmates, who she said essentially "run the prison."
"All those officers got their bookbags and left us here by ourselves," Cummings said. "You have officers working 18 hours."
Rose pushed back on this assertion, saying "perception is not always reflective of reality" but refused to disclose how any officers and support staff are assigned to "work at a facility at any given point" for security reasons.
The prison system, by all accounts, is chronically and dangerously understaffed. Recent data shows the system is staffed below 50% capacity.
And despite a renewed effort to increase hiring over that last 18 months, experienced staff at supervisory levels have left the system at a steady rate.
ADOC has fallen so far behind a previous staffing goal — an order to reach 3,326 officers by 2022 amid a federal lawsuit over disability and mental health treatment — U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson this week ordered them to provide an explanation by June 12 of how they plan to meet their goal. Thompson suggested he is ready to intervene if they cannot adequately do so.
Meanwhile, it's unclear exactly how many Alabama prison staff are unable to work due to rising staff infections and the related quarantines, and how these numbers are affecting already critically low staffing levels.
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.
"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.
Peters, who marked her first year in prison on June 5, said it has been the most "humbling experience, to realize you become a number."
"On one hand, that’s just the way it is," Peters said. "But on the other hand, we’re human beings. My crime was property theft. I’m doing my time. My punishment is to do my time. It shouldn’t include not being taken care of during the epidemic."
©2020 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)